WASHINGTON — An unrelated amendment that would let visitors carry guns in national parks is threatening to delay enactment of card reform legislation.
Senate leaders were already scrambling this week to sort through dozens of amendments on the bill, including ones that would affect interchange fees and set rate caps, before a planned vote today.
But a surprise gun amendment from Sen. Tom Coburn — who used a procedural bait and switch tactic to bring the measure to a vote — is likely to delay final passage. The amendment, which passed 67 to 29, is likely to mean that the House will not accept the Senate legislation, and it may force the bill to conference — an often lengthy process.
Though President Obama had said he was hopeful to sign a card bill by Memorial Day, that now appears unlikely. The Coburn amendment "was very aggressive — outside of the norm of Senate," said a Senate aide. "It makes how we send it to the president it a hell of a lot trickier … but it's not like it torpedoed it."
Coburn brought the amendment up for vote by essentially pretending it was something else.
According to sources — and his own office — he filed a card-related amendment which he said he intended to discuss during debate on the legislation. Instead, when his turn came on the floor Tuesday night, he offered the gun amendment.
"This is something Dr. Coburn thought was a priority," said a spokesman for the Oklahoma Republican. "He's been tying to get a vote on this for 15 months and finally found a way to do it, and that's what initiated yesterday's action."
The addition to the card bill makes it harder for the legislation's sponsors, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., to fend off other amendments to keep the bill narrowly focused. While the House could accept the Senate bill as is, the addition may force the House and Senate to pingpong another round of bills back and forth through both chambers, or to proceed to a formal conference.
"We will not know until the Senate gets through with the bill," said a spokesman for House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that the amendment "should not complicate movement on the bill, but I expect that the bill will go to conference, and it will be addressed at that time."
With questions on how House and Senate leaders would proceed left unsettled, Dodd acknowledged that the maneuver caught everyone off guard, and he lamented that the amendment and debate on other ones would prolong enactment.
"We are trying to deal with a very important issue. Every day we delay is a day when people don't have protection from these abuses," Dodd told reporters Wednesday at a press conference on the card bill.
Though the gun amendment muddies the path to enactment, it is not expected to be enough to derail the bill.
"It slows the bill but doesn't stop it," said Brian Gardner, an analyst with KBW Inc. "It still should be signed by July 4."
Representatives of the credit card industry have turned their attention to a slew of amendments that they said could further hurt their business, particularly an interchange fee amendment from Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Kit Bond, R-Mo., that would let merchants offer discounts for "preferred" cards.
"If they get what they want and force and coerce consumers to switch to debit cards, that could put credit card programs into the red," said Jason Kratovil, a lobbyist with the Independent Community Bankers of America.
The Durbin amendment would allow merchants to offer discounts to customers paying in cash or with debit cards, even though the law already allows retailers to offer cash discounts, and the card system network rules allow retailers to offer discounts for debit cards.
Still, industry representatives said merchants rarely take advantage of such freedoms. They said the provision could cut profit from interchange fees and could put small issuers at a particular disadvantage.
"If I'm a big-box retailer and make a deal with Citi or Chase to save 2% with a Best Buy Visa card, that sets the stage for big retailers to take advantage of their market size with big issuers to drive volume to their cards with preferential arrangements. How does a local mom-and-pop store compete with that?" asked Kratovil.
"Community banks are in the same position as small businesses," he said. "We need to figure out what this stuff does before even considering passing it and enacting it into law."
Dodd told reporters that he sympathizes with retailers on the interchange issue, noting that the president of one of the retail groups is a Connecticut constituent.
He also said that even though he supports the merits of Durbin's proposal, the issue is too controversial. Dodd warned that the provision would have killed his bill at the committee level, so he would prefer not to delve into a long debate on interchange now on the floor.
"I don't have a problem substantively. The question is what are the politics of this," he said. "If it tips the bill to the degree that I lose it and lose everything else, then I've got a problem with putting this in the bill."
At least one amendment that has raised concerns with the banking industry has already failed. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., offered an amendment that would have capped interest rates for credit cards at 15%. The amendment failed by a vote of 60 to 33.
Another amendment, by Sen. David Vitter, R-Ala., that would have require card issuers to grant cards only to consumers with "secure" government-issued identification was rejected 65 to 28.
The fate of several pending amendments remained unclear by press time, but at one point Wednesday more than 30 were floating around.
Senate leaders were hoping to whittle down the list in variety of ways, so that the chamber can call the bill for a final vote today before the Senate breaks for the week.