WASHINGTON - Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill today after a monthlong vacation to punch the clock for their final month of business this year, and banking industry lobbyists are scrambling to salvage some victories out of this lackluster session.
The industry's top priorities are bankruptcy reform, expansion of individual retirement accounts, more open trade with China, and legislation that would protect their multitrillion-dollar swaps contracts from government red tape. The industry's only major successes in 2000 so far are enactment of the digital signature law and emergency farm relief.
Lobbyists are also on the hunt to fend off any last-ditch attempts by privacy hawks to increase restrictions on the uses of customers' financial and medical information.
Though House and Senate Republican leaders are putting some of the bankers' priorities on their to-do list, the scant time remaining on the congressional calendar, election-year politics, and time spent on mandatory spending bills could prevent them from being enacted.
Retirement savings and bankruptcy reform, for instance, may produce significant debate, but those bills are likely to stall so that Democrats running for reelection can claim they protected the little guy and Republicans can point to their opponents as big-government do-nothings.
"Politics is going to basically override everything," said Edward L. Yingling, the American Bankers Association's top lobbyist. "There's going to be a tendency to wrap a bunch of things into one big budget package at the end and bury things in the appropriations bills. It's a time when you've got to be extremely vigilant ... to make sure nobody sneaks anything in. A lot of things will be done in the dead of night."
Still, industry lobbyists say they are not giving up.
"Bankruptcy reform is our biggest issue," Mr. Yingling said. "We know from discussions with leadership, they are going to make a real effort to move it ... At this point, though, it is a bit of an uphill battle."
Little progress was made over the recess in negotiations between congressional Republicans and the White House, which maintains its veto threat over the bankruptcy reform package that has been stalled since overwhelming House and Senate approval. President Clinton has called the legislation "seriously flawed" because, he said, it would weaken consumer protections on abusive check collection practices and preserve state laws that let wealthy debtors escape creditors by buying expensive homes that cannot be seized. He also demanded that the bill explicitly prevent abortion clinic attackers from filing for bankruptcy to escape court penalties.
In a sign that neither side is budging, each challenged the other to move.
"We've given them a counteroffer on the three issues they want addressed. Now we're waiting to hear back," said a spokeswoman for Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the legislation's sponsors.
A White House spokesman countered, "The ball is in their court."
"We've been pretty clear on what we want to happen with this bill," he said. "All they need to do is drop the exemption for abusive check collection, limit the state homestead exemptions, and [adopt] the abortion clinic violence provision."
Optimism is higher for expanding retirement accounts to spur Americans' savings growth at a time when the savings rate is a negative 0.2% and to give banks more attractive products to sell.
The House passed the bill in May and it has made the short list of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's priorities for the next two weeks. The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to consider the bill Thursday, which would increase the caps on annual IRA contributions to $5,000, from $2,000, and expand 401(k) accounts. Lobbyists say it has been set for Senate debate Sept. 22.
The White House, which wants special retirement savings accounts targeting lower income savers included, remains coy about whether the President would sign the legislation in its present form. "We're looking for something that is more balanced. We'd like to see them do something for middle-income families," an administration spokesman said.
Pundits are less hopeful that Republicans will be able to round up enough votes to override the President's recent veto of a bill to eliminate estate taxes, a move strongly sought by community bankers who want to pass on ownership to their heirs.
Despite these conflicts, the industry and White House are allied in support of permanent trade relations with China. The legislation would make it easier for multinational banks to set up operations in the world's largest country, and would boost trade that banks of all sizes play a large part in financing. The bill is scheduled for debate this week in the Senate. It narrowly passed the House in May.
Meanwhile, a bill that would wall off all bank-executed swaps transactions from regulation by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has some powerful allies in the House, but is not stirring much interest in the Senate.
House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach has singled out passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 as a top priority, but the bill approved by his committee in July is one of three versions that have to be reconciled before they can go to the full House for a vote. Competing legislation was passed by the House Agriculture and Commerce committees.
A House Banking spokesman said that Speaker J. Dennis Hastert has indicated that he wants to pass legislation on the issue this session, but the Senate has been less than encouraging though the Senate Agriculture Committee has approved a bill identical to that of its House counterpart.