WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Durbin took direct aim Thursday at an influential lobby representing community banks for opposing his amendment about interchange fees, questioning the group's motives.
Durbin, the second ranking Democrat in the Senate, was sharply critical about the Independent Community Bankers of America. They "don't come to their opposition with clean hands," the Senator from Illinois said.
"They are completely in the thrall of the American Bankers Association and the credit card companies," Durbin told reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference. He suggested the group could face a challenge for calling itself "independent" if it always votes with the larger banks.
The broadside from Durbin suggested a high level of frustration with a group that wields significant clout in the halls of Congress. Durbin has proposed an amendment to broader financial overhaul legislation that would allow the Federal Reserve to regulate the interchange fees charged by financial firms on debit cards, as well as allow merchants to offer discounts to customers based on their method of payment.
The measure is broadly opposed by the financial services industry. Durbin, hoping to blunt the opposition from some senators, has proposed exempting banks and credit unions with $10 billion or less in assets. But that carveout has been rejected by groups representing smaller banks and credit unions such as ICBA, the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, and Credit Union National Association.
"Quite simply, this amendment would hurt credit unions and their 92 million members, and we ask you to oppose it," NAFCU lobbyist Dan Berger wrote to Senate leaders on Thursday. "This is a key vote for your credit union constituency."
Dan Mica, president of CUNA, also called it a "key vote" for the group.
"If the Senate adopts amendments offered by Sen. Durbin on interchange, credit unions will have no choice but to vigorously oppose the financial regulatory reform bill in its current form," Mica said in a statement.
The interchange issue is expected to be debated Thursday afternoon, and Durbin acknowledged the level of support from lawmakers for his amendment is unclear.
"They are struggling with it," he said.
Merchant groups, who have pushed lawmakers to review the fees they face for accepting debit cards, have also been vocal in their support for the amendment.
"With this vote Senators have a choice, they can defend the bad acts of biggest Wall Street banks and credit card giants or they can stand up for consumers and small businesses," the Merchants Payments Coalition said in a release.