The Senate began its long-awaited debate on the credit union bill Friday, focusing primarily on community reinvestment requirements for the nonprofit institutions as well as banks.

Majority Leader Trent Lott said the Senate would wait until Tuesday morning to vote on final passage and the most controversial amendment-an effort by Sen. Richard C. Shelby to exempt small banks from the Community Reinvestment Act.

Votes on other amendments are scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato urged fellow lawmakers to relax membership limits on credit unions and overturn the landmark Feb. 25 Supreme Court decision that required members to share a single, common bond.

The bill would let an occupation-based credit union serve any unrelated company that employed fewer than 3,000 people.

"Credit unions work," said the New York Republican, who predicted an "overwhelming margin" of victory.

"They work for the working families. They work for the little guy .... It is time for Congress to work for them."

Unlike legislation approved by the House 411 to 8 in April, the Senate version also would impose capital requirements and business lending limits.

Sens. D'Amato and Paul S. Sarbanes warned their colleagues to vote against the Shelby and other amendments because they could shatter a carefully crafted bipartisan compromise and draw a presidential veto.

Sen. Shelby defended his amendment as a way to help banks with under $250 million of assets compete with credit unions.

He argued that his plan would lower costs at the more than 8,000 banks of this size, which represent less than 12% of bank assets nationwide.

"The small-bank exemption would not gut CRA," he said. "Why do we have to burden 8,110 small banks who only account for such a small portion of CRA money?"

But Democrats attacked the Shelby amendment and another introduced Friday by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., that would strip provisions in the bill that require credit unions to serve people of modest means in their field of membership.

"CRA is not charity," said Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill. "It is a perfect example of a construct allowing financial services institutions to do good while doing well."

Bankers will push hardest behind the scenes for the amendment they contend has the best odds of winning, a proposal by Sens. Chuck Hagel and Robert F. Bennett to restrict business loans to 7% of credit union assets instead of the 12.25% in the bill.

"Hagel is a devastating amendment and one we totally oppose," said Daniel A. Mica, president of the Credit Union National Association. "It is 100% anti-credit union."

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