The final Washington push on financial reform is showing that failure can't be ruled out. The White House is ready to go ahead with no support from Republicans — who are daring to try. And some on both sides believe no bill could be good politics. Further compromises are needed to avoid gridlock.
Reaching agreement on financial regulation was supposed to be easier — and certainly less ideological and more technocratic — than reforming healthcare. And there was a consensus that the financial crisis demanded change. But financial reform took a back seat to healthcare for longer than expected. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans alike began sensing that the GOP might be able to recapture one or both houses of Congress in November's midterm elections.
As a result, reworking bank regulation has become a defining issue for a potentially heated election season. That militates against anyone making compromises. The White House seems to have settled on a 59 plus one strategy in the Senate: keep the 59 Democrats on side, and pick off at least one Republican to get to the unstoppable 60 vote threshold.
If the partisan approach works, Democrats get a bill they can sell to voters. If it doesn't, they can portray Republicans as pro-Wall Street obstructionists. Republican leaders, though, question whether any Republican — or even all Democrats — will vote for what they are calling a "bailout bill." They hope they can force significant changes or kill it outright, enabling them to argue they had stopped the passage of a bad law.
Both sides, though, could still choose to have a bill rather than just talking points. Room for agreement exists. Perhaps rather than being lodged at the Federal Reserve as proposed, a new consumer finance regulator could be independent and have its own budget but be subject to oversight. And perhaps the $50 billion resolution fund the Democrats want could be eliminated in return for stronger authority to seize and wind down troubled non-bank financial institutions.
Such tweaks would be sensible compromises for any politician wanting concrete results. But for now, political point-scoring is in danger of overshadowing some decent policy.