On Financial Reform, Reasonable Republican Centrists Aren't Quite Sure Where the Reasonable Center Is


It's often seemed to me that, broadly speaking, the financial-services reform debate has been primarily about punishment, not policy, about doing something for the sake of being seen to do something rather than doing something effective. The complexity of the legislation and the obscurity of many of the financial instruments set to be regulated have caused much of this, and obviously there are exceptions, particularly in the wonkier corridors of Acelaland.

But overall the shape of the debate has looked more or less like this: Democrats are against Wall Street, and Republicans are against Democrats. Whether you support or oppose the bill has depended largely on which one you consider the bigger bad guy.

That's made it tough for centrist GOP types, who on one hand are supposed to be reasonable-minded populist reformers—looking out for the little guy, forcing hedge-fund managers to fly commercial to Washington, holding the hands of little children as they walk across the street while giving them good-natured lectures on the food pyramid,  etc.—but are also expected to be fairly reliable team-R players on major initiatives. Which side are they supposed to be on? So far, they've tentatively supported reform, or at least the idea of doing something about all those Big Bad Bankers. But they're less inclined toward new taxes to go along with whatever gets done. And now that Sen. Robert Byrd is headed toward the great conference committee in the sky (dropping the number of yes-votes by one), it looks like the fate of the bill lies in the hands of a handful of Republican squishes moderates:

Democrats need to retain the remaining 57 Democratic and Independent senators and also win over at least three Republicans to meet the key 60-vote threshold needed to pass the bill. As of Monday, no Republican had committed to voting for the legislation.

Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who's charged with guiding the legislation through the Senate, said he "always" worries about having enough votes, but declined to answer further questions. "Let me do my work," he said, before heading off to meet with Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of the Maine Republicans open to voting with Democrats.

Ms. Snowe was one of three Republicans who voiced disquiet about the fee, which could total $17.9 billion, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate. Before her meeting with Mr. Dodd, Ms. Snowe said Monday she was concerned it wasn't debated in either House or Senate before being added in the conference committee that merged the two bills produced by Congress.

"You have to look at the entirety of the legislation," she said. "Obviously, its important to have financial regulatory reform."

Sen. Scott Brown (R., Mass.), who voted yes when the Senate passed its bill in May, reiterated his reservations about the final product because of the fee. "I've said repeatedly that I cannot support any bill that raises taxes." Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, calling herself undecided, said there was "much in this bill to like" but like Mr. Brown, she voiced concern about the fee "slipped in during the late hours."

A number of Democrats, including Evan Bayh and Russ Feingold, are apparently waffling too. But this is almost certainly strategic—an effort to avoid committing before passage is certain, and to perhaps rack up some favors-owed when it does. If the Republicans fall in line, I suspect the Democrats will follow.