WASHINGTON Democratic victories in the Senate on Tuesday, combined with a too-close-to-call presidential race, raise serious questions about the prospects for the banking industrys legislative agenda here next year.
The Democrats made a net gain of at least three seats in the Senate, shaving the Republican majority to a razor-thin 51-49. A loss by Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, who held on to a slim lead Wednesday afternoon as votes were still being counted, had Democrats salivating over the possibility of a 50-50 split.
Among the GOP casualties were some industry allies: Sen. Rod Grams of Minnesota, chairman of the Senate Banking subcommittee on securities; Rep. Bill McCollum, who lost a bid for an open Florida seat; and Sen. Spencer Abraham of Michigan, a co-author of the new digital signature law.
To be sure, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., is expected to remain Banking Committee chairman because Republicans are virtually assured of maintaining official control of the Senate. A Vice President Richard Cheney would, as Senate president, break any tie votes for the chambers leaders in favor of Republicans. And Connecticuts Republican governor would be expected to replace Democrat Joe Lieberman with a Republican if the senator becomes vice president.
But fending off pro-consumer bills could prove more difficult for Sen. Gramm because the current 11-9 Republican majority on the Banking Committee might shrink in accord with the smaller GOP majority in the chamber.
For instance, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama often sided with Democrats in the past two years on bills to toughen privacy laws. Their efforts failed on tie votes but could prevail next year.
A spokeswoman for Senate Banking said that until committee assignments are made it is too early to try to assess the effect the elections will have on next years agenda.
Lobbyists, meanwhile, said that partisan impasses might be a good thing because they could stall harmful legislation.
Ronald R. Glancz, a partner in the Washington law firm of Venable, Baetjer, Howard, & Civiletti, said that, now that we have the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, gridlock is probably in the interests of financial institutions, provided that we dont have a financial crisis and need to take quick action. A Congress unable to pass major initiatives would give the financial reform law time to work, he said.
Gridlock will allow the regulatory agencies to implement the new law and will let the marketplace determine what is going on out there, he said.
Yet industry leaders said they would urge bipartisanship on their top priorities, such as bankruptcy reform or retirement savings incentives.
Steve Bartlett, a former Republican congressman who is now president of the Financial Services Roundtable, said congressional leaders have two choices: They could create a much more partisan Congress in which the rancor would increase and the amount of work will decrease. Or they can make it more bipartisan, with Republicans forming an alliance with pro-business Democrats to successfully move financial services legislation.
Some industry officials played down fears of privacy bills, arguing that such measures would have face a tough fight next year even if the Senates composition had remained the same.
Our assumption has always been that we would face privacy legislation in this coming Congress, said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. The election results did nothing to change that.
The post-election uncertainty over whether Texas Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Gore will be the next president has not fazed banks Washington watchers either.
Administrations historically have not been as important as Congress on banking legislation, Mr. Yingling said. Structural issues have generally been more bipartisan, while it tends to be consumer issues where there is significant difference.
Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, said Republican and Democratic White Houses have their pros and cons.
Republicans are much, much better in the area of less regulation, he said. The Democrats are better on issues such as Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. insurance and support for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Home Loan banks, which are the foundation blocks for successful community banking.
Rep. McCollums failed bid to win the Florida Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Connie Mack, a Republican member of Senate Banking, contributed to the narrowing of Republican congressional margins.
Rep. McCollum, a 20-year House Banking Committee veteran who has been a consistent advocate for the industry, lost to the states Democratic insurance commissioner, Bill Nelson, a consumer privacy hawk and former congressman who served on House Banking from 1985 to 1990.
In New York, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton knocked out House Bankings housing subcommittee chairman, Rick Lazio. Observers are divided on whether Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., would trade his Senate Banking seat for one on the Senate Finance Committee. That could free up New Yorks traditional slot on Senate Banking for Ms. Clinton.
Neither the Schumer nor the Clinton offices would confirm their committee preferences.
Minnesota voters ousted Sen. Grams, a friend of the industry who was on Senate Banking for six years, in favor of Democrat Mark Dayton, who is expected to champion consumer issues.
Senate Finance Chairman William Roth, who sponsored some important banking products, including the popular Roth Individual Retirement Account, during his 30-year tenure, lost his Delaware seat to the states Democratic governor, Tom Carper.
However, Gov. Carper, who served in Congress from 1983 to 1992 as a member of House Banking, is also considered an industry friend. He plans to seek a seat on Senate Banking, his campaign staff said Wednesday.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is expected to succeed Sen. Roth as chairman of the Finance Committee. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is slated to replace retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York as the ranking Democrat.
Sen. Abraham of Michigan, a key Commerce Committee member, was narrowly unseated by his Democratic challenger, Rep. Debbie Stabenow.
In addition to Sen. Grams defeat, the Senate Banking lineup will no longer include Sen. Mack or Sen. Richard H. Bryan, D-Nev., who is also retiring. Former Republican Rep. John Ensign won Sen. Bryans seat.
Senate Bankings top Democrat, Paul Sarbanes, easily kept his Maryland seat. Republican Senate Banking member Rick Santorum held on to the Pennsylvania seat he has occupied since 1994. The newest Senate Banking member, Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., also won reelection.
Lobbyists insisted that losing Sens. Abraham, Grams, and Roth, as well as Reps. McCollum and Lazio, will not affect the outcome of issues important to the financial services industry.
What is more important in terms of banking issues that remain out there, like privacy and bankruptcy, and more important than the faces who come under them, is: Will there be a working relationship between Gramm and Sarbanes in a more divided Senate, or will there be a Texas standoff, as there has been? Mr. Guenther said.
Rob Garver and Rob Blackwell contributed to this article.