Threatening to bog down financial reform legislation, the House was poised Friday to appoint a large team of negotiators who are evenly divided on controversial issues.
House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach had been expected to control a majority of his chamber's delegates to the House-Senate conference committee that will reconcile differences in the two bills. But House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert decided to give the Banking and Commerce committees 14 spots each.
That mix is important, because the White House favors the parts of the bill backed by House Banking and has threatened a veto if the Commerce Committee's proposals to curb powers for direct bank subsidiaries are retained. The banking industry opposes Commerce's demand for tougher restrictions on bank insurance and securities activities.
"This is going to be a very difficult and complicated conference," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. "The potential problem when you have an equal split is you could get a stalemate on an insurance or securities issue."
Conferees are expected to hold an introductory meeting this week but hold off on any significant actions until after Labor Day. Observers are still confident the long-sought legislation will be enacted, but talks between lawmakers and the White House could drag on for months. Some sources said negotiations could continue until next year.
"This could take longer than anyone expected," said James J. Butera, a thrift industry lobbyist. "The momentum of the bill has really slowed," but "it's hard for me to believe that they are not going to be able to wrap it up this year."
Further swelling the ranks of the House team, three members of the Judiciary Committee are expected to have input on antitrust issues, and the Agriculture Committee is expected to send three members because privacy provisions in the bill may affect the Farm Credit System.
Democrats plan to vary the makeup of their team among the five major sections of the bill-meaning the House alone will have more than 40 lawmakers working on the bill. The Senate has already appointed all 20 members of its Banking Committee.
"This is an enormously large conference," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Community Bankers of America. "It diffuses the decisional power. We have all got a lot of lobbying work ahead of us."
The House and Senate sides will square off over issues such as direct bank subsidiaries, community reinvestment requirements, privacy, and commercial ownership of unitary thrifts.
Sources predicted that Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm will benefit by the House's divisions.
"This makes Gramm an even more dominant force in the conference," said Bert Ely, a financial services industry consultant in Alexandria, Va.
But others said the larger House team was assembled in an effort to include experts on various issues who can counter Sen. Gramm.
"The House is attempting to double- and triple-team Phil Gramm, since he is the overpowering force in the Senate," said Steve Blumenthal, an analyst with Schwab Washington Research Group.
The expected decision by Speaker Hastert, a former member of the Commerce Committee, to go with a 14-14 split is considered a victory for Commerce Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr. and a defeat for Rep. Leach.
"We are a little bit surprised," a House Banking staff member said. "We were expecting to have more members on our side" as the committee of primary jurisdiction.
House Banking is expected to send its eight ranking Republicans: Chairman Jim Leach and Bill McCollum of Florida, Marge Roukema of New Jersey, Doug Bereuter of Nebraska, Richard H. Baker of Louisiana, Rick Lazio of New York, Spencer Bachus of Alabama, and Michael Castle of Delaware.
From House Banking's Democratic side, ranking minority member John J. LaFalce and Rep. Bruce F. Vento of Minnesota are expected to negotiate all parts of the bill. Their group is to include 11 others, including Paul E. Kanjorski of Pennsylvania and Maxine Waters of California.
The eight House Commerce Republicans are expected to be Rep. Bliley, Michael G. Oxley and Paul E. Gillmor of Ohio, W.J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana, Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania, Christopher Cox and Brian Bilbray of California, and Steve Largent of Oklahoma.
Rep. John D. Dingell was expected to lead House Commerce Democrats.