Choosing not to dwell on their defeat, supporters of financial services reform are already pledging a unified effort to get the long-sought legislation enacted in early 1999.
But whether the shaky coalition of banking, insurance, and securities interests can last remains unclear. Some supporters also fear that the outcome of the November elections, a downturn in the economy, or controversial regulatory decisions will weaken the bill's prospects.
Because of these looming threats, some lobbyists said, the bill's near passage but ultimate failure this year might have been its best chance.
"There is no doubt this was a golden opportunity, a lost opportunity," said Robert A. Rusbuldt, executive vice president of the Independent Insurance Agents of America. "When Congress reconvenes in January you could see very different attitudes on HR 10. The attitude could be one of more caution."
So far, supporters are presenting a united front.
A joint statement earlier this week by eight industry trade groups, including the American Bankers Association and the Independent Insurance Agents of America, vowed to sustain the historic compromise that these normally warring factions reached late in the congressional session.
"Our trade associations will work together the rest of this year and next year with leaders of Congress to achieve enactment of financial modernization legislation based on this consensus approach at the earliest possible date next year," the statement said.
Lawmakers predicted success, too.
"We are going to pass that bill," Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato said Wednesday. "We are going to bring it up soon. It is going to be a priority early in the session."
As a symbol of their commitment, House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach and his subcommittee chiefs reintroduced the legislation Tuesday that reflects the Senate compromises that won over the banking industry. (The House approved a reform bill by a 214-to-213 vote in May, but a handful of Republican opponents forced Senate leaders to set it aside.)
Signs of fissures have already emerged, however.
America's Community Bankers and the Independent Bankers Association of America did not sign the joint industry statement, reflecting policy differences and industry rivalries. And though officials at other trade groups insisted they will not back out of the coalition, most could not resist talking about desired changes.
Mr. Rusbuldt said state insurance commissioners should get equal footing with federal banking regulators in lawsuits. But several banking lobbyists said no concessions to the agents will be tolerated, and another said that some bankers are demanding more legal protections for bank sales of insurance. Mr. Rusbuldt responded that consensus is "hanging by a thread" and that any rollbacks would turn his group against the bill.
The Financial Services Council, a strong reform proponent, still favors letting bank holding companies derive a portion of their revenues from nonfinancial businesses, president Samuel J. Baptista said. But removing the ban on bank ownership of commercial enterprises would anger Senate Banking's top Democrat, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, as well as Rep. Leach and the community bank lobby.
Several disputes remain unresolved.
Republicans Phil Gramm and Richard C. Shelby stopped the bill in the Senate with complaints that it expanded the Community Reinvestment Act. Sen. Gramm said Wednesday that he is "confident" a CRA compromise will be reached next year, but had no details. Some banking lobbyists suggested that a deal could involve eliminating $1 million-a-day fines for CRA violations and relying on a bank's most recent CRA rating when a merger is challenged, instead of conducting a new exam.
Whether the Clinton administration will withdraw its veto threat is another unknown. The Treasury Department's fight with the Federal Reserve Board over powers for direct bank subsidiaries continues. Treasury officials declined to be interviewed, but acting Comptroller of the Currency Julie L. Williams said lawmakers should start from scratch next year and reorient the legislation toward the safety and soundness of financial companies.
The November elections are another wild card. Key members of the House and Senate Banking Committees are up for reelection, with Sen. D'Amato engaged in one of the toughest national races.
If Sen. D'Amato loses, Sen. Gramm would become chairman. "It's hard to imagine anything that could be more negative for the bill," a veteran banking lawyer said. But Sen. Gramm dismissed such concerns and predicted Sen. D'Amato's victory. "I think we will pass a financial deregulation bill next year, and I believe we will do it early in the session," the Texas Republican said.
Rehearsing their arguments for next year, lobbyists disagreed on the effect the world financial crisis may have on the bill.
Citigroup lobbyist Roger N. Levy argued that reform legislation would insulate U.S. financial firms from bad economic times and foreign takeovers. "We need the kind of financial institutions in size and diversity that can withstand those economic shocks," he said.
Other lobbyists countered that lawmakers will balk if economic turmoil persists. "You don't pass a deregulatory bill when multibillion-dollar hedge funds are going down the tubes and pulling bank stocks down with them," Mr. Rusbuldt said.
Regulatory or court decisions could also be divisive. If a rush of new unitary thrift charters are granted to insurance and commercial companies, banks could be angered and thrifts emboldened to fight limits on unitaries. Approvals of new powers for bank subsidiaries by the comptroller's office could make banks less interested in legislation and spark insurance industry lawsuits.
Supporters are worried, too, that heightened calls for privacy protection could inflame debate over affiliate sharing of customer data. "It is important and needs to be addressed," Mr. Levy said, but the reform bill "is the wrong place to do that."
Time will also be a factor. A new two-year congressional session begins in January. But supporters want to get the bill enacted next year before the 2000 presidential campaign distracts Congress.