WASHINGTON - Republican Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable, says he will not let partisan pride prevent him from getting the industry's priorities enacted next year.
Indeed, Mr. Bartlett - a GOP fund-raiser, friend of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and a former Texas congressman and Dallas mayor - has already begun courting a coalition of pro-business lawmakers on the other side of the aisle in anticipation of political gridlock as Republicans try to operate with razor-thin majorities in the next Congress.
He said in a recent interview that this group of fiscally conservative but socially liberal politicians, known as the New Democrats, could supply the pivotal votes that make or break the financial services lobbying agenda.
The New Democrats "have in this congressional session and will, clearly even more so, in the next session, hold the balance of power on financial services and economic issues, so we take them very seriously," said Mr. Bartlett, whose association represents some of the largest bank holding, insurance, and securities companies in the country.
The young but increasingly influential group of nearly 70 House members was spun off three years ago from the 15-year-old Democratic Leadership Council whose chairman is vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. They did not form a formal coalition in the Senate until this summer but have quickly earned a high profile on Capitol Hill.
Their ranks include House Banking Committee members such as Reps. Ken Bentsen of Texas and Jay Inslee of Washington. Their leader is Rep. Calvin Dooley of California.
In the Senate, Mr. Bartlett cited newly elected Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who is a former House Banking member, and Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who joined the Senate Banking Committee after being appointed to succeed the late Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell. Senate Banking member Evan Bayh of Indiana is another New Democrat.
Most of the coalition's members have championed bankers' legislative priorities, including the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the digital signatures law, bankruptcy reform, and free trade.
"In every case they were the leverage," Mr. Bartlett said. "When they are for something, they get behind it, and they make it pass. They understand business issues, but they also act on those business issues."
"In that sense, the coalition as a whole has my admiration because they didn't have to stand firm on financial services modernization, digital signatures," free trade with "China, bankruptcy reform, or anything else," he said. "They stayed hitched. They had all kinds of opportunities to cut and run, but they never did."
Bankers will rely even more heavily on the coalition next year. The Capitol has been echoing with talk from both sides of the aisle about the need for bipartisanship to drive legislation through a Senate of 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, plus a House with a five-seat Republican majority.
"The House and Senate are divided places right now, so I think the New Democrats are not trying to walk down the middle between the divide as much as they are trying to identify specific issues that are good for the American economy and then form an alliance with both sides of the aisle - with Republican leadership and with other Democrats they can find," Mr. Bartlett said.
If he has his way, these legislative issues will include bankruptcy reform (which the Senate passed Thursday but President Clinton is expected to veto), retirement savings tax incentives, free trade, and litigation reform. But most important for the industry is blocking additional laws that would rein in corporate use of customer information, Mr. Bartlett said.
"Privacy is Nos. 1 through 10" on the Roundtable's list of priorities for next year, he said. "To the extent that New Democrats promote rational discourse, the New Democrats will be quite helpful in the privacy debate. But I'm not taking them or anyone else for granted."
Though a staunch and proud Republican, Mr. Bartlett said he does not feel the least bit troubled about promoting the other side. "I look for allies wherever people agree with our positions," he said.