Democratic and Republican leaders on the House Banking Committee used a hearing on big-bank mergers Wednesday as a forum to promote financial reform this year.

"The only way to level the competitive playing field-particularly for small banks, insurance agents, and regional securities firms-is through legislation empowering all financial services providers" to compete with the likes of the proposed Citibank-Travelers Group merger, committee Chairman Jim Leach said.

Rep. John J. LaFalce, the committee's ranking Democrat, said financial reform was worthwhile as long as consumers are protected and an adequate supervisory system is established.

But sniping between top Federal Reserve Board and Treasury Department officials Wednesday cast doubt on Congress' chances of breaking the impasse on financial reform legislation this year.

Separately Wednesday, House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley and Rep. John Dingell, the committee's ranking Democrat, reached a compromise on financial reform. Rep. Dingell had demanded changes to provisions governing bank sales of insurance and consumer protections. Details of the were not immediately available.

"We believe that these provisions will gain us the necessary support to pass financial services reform on the House floor next week," they said in an April 29 letter to Rep. John A. Boehner, the Republican pointman on financial reform.

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