WASHINGTON - Sounding very much like victims, the top executives at American Express Co. and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. beseeched a Senate subcommittee for legislation aimed at reigning in Visa and MasterCard, whose practices they portrayed as unfair and monopolistic.

Calling Visa "the ringleader," Morgan Stanley chairman and chief executive officer Philip Purcell complained that the bank card associations charge higher merchant fees than his company's Discover card. "The fact is that merchants have very few options today," he said. "Public policy that discourages the two dominant associations from creating barriers to new entry is a critical way to ensure new network competition and choice for consumers and merchants."

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