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Brown Threatens No Vote on FinReg, Path to 60 Muddled

We have a wealth of experts weighing in on the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill (the text of which is available here). Edmund Andrews, Andrew Leonard, Damian Paletta, Rep. Alan Grayson and especially this collection of luminaries courtesy of the Roosevelt Institute (Rob Johnson, Elizabeth Warren, Marshall Auerback, etc.) are worth reading.

But all the debating and strategizing over the bill means little if it cannot pass. And after this weekend’s events, alluded to here, I’m not sure it can. Aside from Robert Byrd being in all likelihood unavailable to cast a roll call vote, leaving the Senate potentially short of 60 votes, Scott Brown has decided to throw a fit:

President Barack Obama’s efforts to win final approval of a historic financial regulatory reform bill looked more complicated on Saturday after a Republican senator threatened to oppose it.

“I was surprised and extremely disappointed to hear that $18 billion in new assessments and fees were added in the wee hours of the morning by the conference committee,” Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown said […]

“While I’m still reviewing the bill’s details, these provisions were not in the Senate version of the bill which I previously supported … I’ve said repeatedly that I cannot support any bill that raises tax,” Brown said.

You’ve now heard more opposition from Brown about this fee, designed to offset the bill’s costs, than from the banks themselves, who feel confident they can get around the provisions and view the bank levy as inevitable. Bank stocks jumped after the announcement of the deal on Friday. But this is the reliability you’d expect from a member of the minority on the cusp of a perceived victory for the majority.

Democrats got exactly 60 votes for cloture on the bill last time, with Brown one of three Republicans. Chuck Grassley voted against cloture and then for the bill. Due to Byrd’s illness, he would be needed along with keeping Brown aboard to have any chance at passage, it appears; a spokesman said he’s still looking at the conference report. Bob Corker could possibly be another target.

The Senate leadership is reduced, then, to begging with Republicans to get their bill passed, when two Democrats, Russ Feingold and Maria Cantwell, voted against the Senate bill and could have been enticed if the conference committee moved it in their direction. Cantwell held out for the closure of a loophole in the derivatives title, and that actually did get closed up, but it’s unclear where she stands – she’s said nothing at this point. And Feingold’s not going to vote for a bill which he thinks won’t work to prevent financial crises. There was a path to 60 votes through these two and not Scott Brown, but that’s not the direction in which the conference committee went. And now they could pay a price for that.

Meanwhile, assuming that this does get resolved, the next major step would be the global Basel III accords on international banking standards, set to conclude this year. The G-20 resolved to create a firm capital requirement at their meeting in Toronto, which is a good sign:

In their Communique, the G20 leaders will for the first time make an explicit commitment to agree new minimum levels of capital for banks in time for the next Summit in Seoul in November.

UK officials say there will be no precise figure until then, but the statement will pledge that the capital buffer that banks are required to hold against future losses will be high enough to have prevented any major bank from needing government support in the financial crisis of 2007-9.

It doesn’t sound like much. But it does set limits on where this immensely complicated financial reform effort can end up. There will be a similar commitment to raise bank liquidity standards, and set overall limits on leverage, or borrowing.

Here’s the White House’s backgrounder on this. With the Wall Street reform bill not as strong as needed on capital requirements or leverage, Basel III takes on major significance, and this at least hints at a solid commitment on that front.

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David Dayen

David Dayen