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Obama’s Efforts to Foster Harmony on Wall St Reform Erupt into Warfare

by Giles Whittell

America’s most powerful politicians met at the White House yesterday for the start of a six-week battle in which both main parties will fight for the right to claim that they are taming Wall Street’s wildest excesses and safeguarding a resurgent US economy.

House Minority Leader John Boehner criticizes the financial regulation reform bill after a meeting Wednesday with President Barack Obama and congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, right. (Getty Images) Emboldened by continuing popular disgust over the big banks’ role in the worst US recession since the 1930s, President Obama invited Republican leaders to what was billed as a cordial bipartisan discussion of financial regulatory reform.

It was anything but. In an hour-long meeting that appears to have deepened party divisions over the future of the economy, Mr Obama attacked his Republican guests for their closeness to Wall Street lobbyists, demanded a complete overhaul of the risky derivatives markets that led to the brink of a financial meltdown two years ago and accused Republicans of a “campaign of misinformation” about his reforms.

In open defiance of Mr Obama’s call for cross-party backing for the Senate finance Bill, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, denounced the Bill minutes after the White House meeting as a recipe for institutionalising the bank bailouts of 2008. The $85 billion (£50 billion) rescue of the AIG insurance giant in particular has become a reviled symbol of taxpayer-funded indulgence of Wall Street irresponsibility.

The stakes in the unfolding debate on the future of the US financial industry could hardly be higher.

Outside Congress, experts from across the political spectrum agree that tough new rules on derivatives trading and banks’ capital reserves are essential to prevent a repeat of the 2008 meltdown that cost America 11 million jobs and wiped out the savings of millions of middle-class Americans.

Mr Obama has set Congress a deadline of May 31 to approve a Bill that would give the Federal Reserve direct oversight of financial institutions with assets of more than $50 billion.

It would also create a “resolution authority” that would let the US Treasury guide failing firms into bankruptcy — and oblivion — at minimal or no cost to the taxpayer.

“I am confident that we can work out an effective bipartisan package that assures that we never have ‘too-big-to-fail again’,” he said before yesterday’s meeting, referring to the AIG bailout.

Senator McConnell had already launched a pre-emptive strike against the Democratic Bill on Tuesday, saying that it would make future bailouts more, rather than less, likely.

What surprised and angered the White House was his decision to stick to the same line of argument despite language in the Bill that explicitly rules out the use of taxpayers’ money to save failing banks in the future.

Austan Goolsbee, chief economist of the White House’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said that he was stunned by Mr McConnell’s stance. It was “totally disingenuous” to claim that the Senate Bill enshrined the “too-big-to-fail” concept, he said, when in fact it required that the management of failing financial firms be fired and their shareholders be wiped out.

Even before the passage of a $940 billion health reform Bill last month, there was no love lost between the White House and the congressional Republican leadership.

Sensing weakness in Mr Obama’s deliberative style in the healthcare debate and in the three months that he spent reaching a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, it imposed tighter discipline on moderates who might have been tempted to back Democratic Bills on merit, in the hope of branding the Administration incapable of governing, and recapturing the White House in 2012.

One result was that the finance Bill approved by the Senate Banking Committee lacks the support of a single Republican despite months of negotiations aimed at winning over moderates, including Richard Shelby, of Alabama, and Bob Corker, of Tennessee.

In a shift that may have strengthened Mr Obama’s hand, Senator Shelby, the senior Republican on the banking committee, hinted that he might break ranks as pressure builds from Democrats for the 60 votes they need to pass the Bill. “It is a bad concept to bail out anybody,” he told CNBC, adding that he still held out hopes of a reform package passing by early June.

Since January the Democrats have needed at least one Republican vote to be sure of passing anything in the Senate except by the controversial reconciliation process used to make crucial amendments to the health reform Bill.

This is the first serious test of Mr Obama’s ability to sway Congress since senior Republicans, including Senator John McCain, vowed to block every item on his domestic agenda after their defeat on healthcare.

Democrats still fear that victory may cost them dearly at the midterm elections but they are confident that when it comes to reining in Wall Street they will have the public behind them.

“This ought to be a bipartisan Bill and I think in the end it will be,” Mr Goolsbee said.

The White House is calculating that Republicans who choose to remain opposed to the most sweeping Wall Street reforms in several generations will risk being punished by voters for appearing to support irresponsible bankers at the expense of Main Street.

Senator McConnell and others had a private meeting in New York this week with hedge fund managers and their lobbyists. Democrats have since gleefully accused him of parroting Wall Street’s talking points. On yesterday’s evidence, he may have to find some new ones.

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