Many industry lobbyists predict that the Senate will begin debate on the financial services reform bill within a week-possibly as early as Friday.
What path it takes from there has become an insiders' guessing game. The primary challenge for Congress is that the banking industry, which generally opposed the House version, says it could support the pro-bank bill approved by the Senate Banking Committee Sept. 11. But insurance agents, with close contacts to House leaders like Speaker Newt Gingrich, want the bill tilted back toward their interests. And a wild card remains in how hard the thrift industry will fight to remove limits on unitary thrift holding companies in both versions.
Two weeks ago lobbyists for the Independent Insurance Agents of America and the American Bankers Association called for a "preconference" before the legislation reaches the Senate floor that could determine a final package and might lead to speedy votes by the House and Senate. That prospect has dimmed, sources said.
"Quite frankly, I don't see that at this point," said Samuel J. Baptista, president of the Financial Services Council. "The Senate wants to hold firm with the bill it passed out of committee."
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato and ranking Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes are expected to try to push through a bill with as few amendments as possible. A key obstacle would be the estimated 10 to 20 "holds" senators have placed on the bill.
On the plus side, sources say House Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner is crafting some changes that would favor agents and unitary thrifts. Those could be considered in an abbreviated conference committee meeting or voted on quickly by the House and sent back to the Senate for approval.
Senate Banking Committee members are expected to quiz John D. Hawke Jr. at his confirmation hearing today about stalled compromise efforts on the reform bill.
President Clinton nominated Mr. Hawke, the Treasury Department's under secretary for domestic finance, in July to be comptroller of the currency. Confirmation is expected, but Mr. Hawke is not expected to present a compromise on the Treasury's clash with the Federal Reserve Board over powers for direct operating subsidiaries of banks.
"He won't have any new deals, no new proposals," a high-ranking Treasury official said, but "he is ready and willing to answer any questions."
Small banks are pressing hard for a farm bailout bill. In a letter to Congress Monday, Independent Bankers Association of America president William L. McQuillan asked lawmakers to help farmers and their bankers through a difficult year of bad weather and low prices. The trade group's plan would blend features of a $4 billion Republican relief package announced last week and the Democrats' proposal, which was updated this week to request $7 billion in aid for farmers.
While avoiding a dollar figure, the IBAA said Congress should revive a program that gives farmers an incentive to leave some of their acreage idle and a second plan that would give food to Russia and other foreign countries suffering from economic turmoil.
To help agricultural banks, the trade group would also like legislators to beef up the Agriculture Department's guaranteed lending program, appoint an agriculture expert to the Federal Reserve Board, and encourage national bank regulators not to punish banks that re-work loans for farmers with temporary cash-flow problems.