WASHINGTON — Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby has a limited window to move his regulatory reform legislation next year, after failing to secure passage for the bill as part of the budget fight.
Moderates on the panel have been in talks for months in an effort to forge a compromise on the Alabama Republican's proposal for changes to the Dodd-Frank Act, including raising the $50 billion threshold for "systemically important" banks. But as the presidential election heats up and Shelby prepares for his own reelection campaign, lawmakers will have to act fast in the new year if legislation is to move via regular order. That effort remains an uphill battle.
"The Senate negotiations over bank regulatory relief has two key takeaways — first, there is bipartisan support for targeted bank relief in this Congress, and second, when it comes to the details, there isn't nearly as much consensus as needed to remain optimistic about anything of substance getting across the finish line in 2016," said Isaac Boltansky, an analyst at Compass Point Research & Trading.
Analysts predicted that several factors could diminish momentum to act. Congress passed a host of widely supported, bipartisan regulatory relief measures in the highway bill earlier this month, removing some of the provisions that many saw as sweetening any deal between the two parties over more controversial issues, like raising the $50 billion threshold. Moreover, the Federal Reserve announced on Monday that it's going to better tailor stress test guidelines for banks between $50 billion and $250 billion going forward. That potentially undercuts one of the biggest criticisms of the threshold, which is that regulators have failed to implement more customized regulations for banks of different sizes and risk profiles.
"That will relieve some of the political pressure to get anything done on the Hill," said Edward Mills, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets, of the Fed's announcement.
Perhaps more crucially, there's the simple issue of timing.
Brian Gardner, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said that moving legislation beyond the first quarter of 2016 will be challenging. Shelby faces his own primary race on March 1 against three Republican opponents, which is likely to take at least some of his attention by late winter, as he spends more time in Alabama with constituents.
Shelby, who's served in the Senate since 1987, is not seen to be in any imminent danger of losing his seat. But he is likely to be watching potential challenges from the right much more closely after the surprise loss of Majority Leader Eric Cantor last year in the Virginia primary and the near-upset of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.
"Shelby is, in my view, going to take his primary opponents seriously — he's going to take nothing for granted," said Gardner.
And, of course, there's the elephant in the room: the presidential race. While there continues to be bipartisan support for providing relief to small banks and for raising the $50 billion threshold for regional banks, the political climate is likely to grow increasingly more divided, making such changes difficult.
"The rhetoric becomes more defined and polarizing with each passing day," said Boltansky. "I think it's difficult to imagine Democrats supporting anything that comes within a country mile of helping the largest banks, even though I think the regionals have done a fine job distancing themselves from the money-center banks."
The elections also take a big bite out of the congressional calendar. The party conventions take up the second half of July on top of Congress's usual August recess. Lawmakers will also be out of town for much of October and the first half of November.
Of course, some observers emphasize that the odds remained mixed — and that there's room for hope, despite the hurdles. A spokeswoman for Shelby said last week after the budget deal was released that the chairman "intends to pick up where the committee left off and remains focused on examining the damage done by Dodd-Frank." She declined to provide further details on Tuesday about his plans for the bill next year.
Moderates on the Banking Committee reportedly made some inroads towards a compromise in the lead-up to the budget fight this month and can build on those talks in the new year. Those involved remain quiet, suggesting to some that the discussions have been productive.
While lawmakers lost their chance at attaching relief to must-pass legislation, moving through regular order potentially removes some of the process concerns that came up in that fight over the use of policy riders on spending bills.
It's also possible lawmakers could turn back to the legislation in the lame duck session if time runs out to move forward on a deal early in the year — though that will depend on a number of factors, including who wins the White House and what party takes control of the Senate in November.
This will also be Shelby's last year as head of the banking panel, leading some to believe he'll work overtime to move his legislation into law.
Still, others note that Shelby doesn't have immediate plans to leave the Senate anytime soon, giving him additional opportunity into 2017 and beyond to pursue the fight for regulatory relief, particularly given his senior status on the Appropriations Committee.
"Shelby has always played the long game, and just because he's no longer chairman of the Banking Committee, that doesn't necessarily reduce his overall influence in the Senate," said Mills. "What we have seen is that the vast majority of actual legislative changes have gone through the appropriations process."