WASHINGTON - As the House Banking Committee prepares for crucial votes on Glass-Steagall legislation next week, all eyes are on the panel's huge bloc of freshmen Republicans.
The 17 GOP lawmakers represent fully one-third of the panel's votes and their views will likely determine whether the committee approves a narrow Glass-Steagall bill or broadens the package to permit large industrial companies to own banks.
As important as their votes are, however, nobody really knows for sure who commands the loyalties of this new group of legislators.
Is it House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach of Iowa, whose Glass- Steagall bill maintains the barriers separating commerce and banking? Or will the newcomers side with Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., who is sponsoring legislation that would permit companies of all kinds to merge with banks.
Some argue that the Banking Committee rookies will feel compelled to follow the lead of Rep. Leach.
"The party line among the freshmen seems to be 'Don't vote against the chairman, especially on the first big bill out of the committee,'" said one bank lobbyist. "Nobody can argue against the merits of Baker's approach, but that doesn't necessarily define how you vote."
Indeed, Rep. Robert Ehrlich, a freshman Republican from Maryland, said that he and a group of other freshmen asked Rep. Baker to develop as much common ground as possible with Chairman Leach before the markup. This would help the freshmen "avoid running against the grain of the chairman."
An aide in Rep. Baker's office said he was "hopeful, but not optimistic" that Rep. Baker and Rep. Leach will reconcile their differing views on how to modernize the financial industry.
And a lack of consensus between Rep. Baker and Rep. Leach could create tension for the freshman.
For many of them, to vote with Rep. Baker would be consistent with their free-market, pro-business attitudes. But that would mean standing up against the chairman, a forbidding option that could very well lead the first-termers to stifle the philosophies they held so dear during their campaigns.
Nevertheless, one legislative source said the way freshmen vote during the markup may have more to do with how informed they are.
"When they are confused, they'll go with the chairman, but if they know what they are talking about, they'll stand up on their own," he said.
To this end, Rep. Baker recently sent 60-page briefing booklet to the GOP freshmen on House Banking. It defines banking terms, describes the current state of the financial services industry, and compares and contrasts the different modernization bills.
Still, many of the newcomers readily admit that they are frustrated by the short time left to prepare themselves for the rapidly approaching vote.
"I'm just not satisfied because I haven't been able to sit in enough of the Glass-Steagall hearings," said Rep. Robert Ney. The Ohio Republican said most of his time over the first 100 days of the session was spent working on the Contract with America.
"I really wish I had another 60 days to think about this. I'm still up in the air on it because I just haven't had time to home in on the issue," Rep. Ney added.
And while many of the freshmen's banking aides are up to snuff on all the issues tied into next week's markup, some are just as frustrated as the lawmakers because they haven't had much time to brief their bosses.
"I've been hitting the books real hard, but I haven't had a chance to sit down and discuss this with my boss," said one aide.
The staffer said there's virtually no time left to brief his boss before the markup. Republican lawmakers left on a retreat yesterday that will last until Friday, and they'll fly back to their districts for the weekend.
"Some of the older guys feel comfortable jumping right in to something like this, but I'm not sure about the freshmen," said the aide.
Nevertheless, some of them found time between constituent visits during the three-week recess to bone up on Glass-Steagall issues.
"I've taken a two-inch-thick notebook on vacation with me and it's all on Glass-Steagall ... and I suspect I'm not alone on that," said Rep. Ehrlich in an interview during the recess. "The Mexican peso issue was the only banking stuff we've really had to focus on since we've been here."
Rep. Ehrlich added that "the real wild card coming into this markup is the group of freshmen who have had really no experience in banking matters in their prior life."
Rep. Jerry Weller is one such lawmaker. While the Illinois Republican spent six years in the state House, none of his committee assignments touched upon banking issues.
"Never having served on a banking committee before, I've been working very hard to get up to speed," Rep. Weller said. "It's especially challenging because Glass-Steagall is so complicated."
Rep. Weller added that he is looking forward to reading Rep. Baker's briefing booklet.
Another way to ensure that the neophytes don't simply vote with the chairman, according to America's Community Bankers lobbyist Steve Verdier, is to make sure that senior Republicans are prepared to engage in debate about important issues.
With all the uncertainty involved in the dwindling days before the markup, Rep. Ehrlich said that one thing is sure: the steady stream of lobbyists flowing into their offices.
"I can guarantee that there will be a lot of time spent behind closed doors during the week we're back before the markup."