WASHINGTON — Seeking to win Republican votes for regulatory reform legislation, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd and other Democrats suggested Monday that they are open to eliminating a proposed $50 billion resolution fund for systemically important institutions.
Republican leaders have used the provision, which the Treasury Department also opposes, as one of the chief arguments for how the bill would allow more taxpayer-funded bailouts.
But Dodd and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., responded that the bill relies on funding from banks, not taxpayers. Still, they said they were open to changing the provision.
"It was our concurrence, and candidly, some of our Republican colleagues suggested, that the way to fund this was to have the banking industry prefund this," Warner said. "Now, if there are other ways to do this, we'd listen."
Dodd also distanced himself from the provision. His original bill did not include such a requirement, but it was added later at the behest of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. during negotiations with Warner and Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.
The provision would charge banks with more than $50 billion of assets a fee to set up a fund to help unwind a systemically important institution. Even though the fund could not, in theory at least, be used to prop up an institution, Republican lawmakers have seized on it, casting it as a permanent Troubled Asset Relief Program.
"Why shouldn't large financial institutions that have assets more than $50 billion have a prepayment so the taxpayers are not exposed if they end up in tough shape?" Dodd said. "That's our view, one we shared with our Republican friends. This isn't one that came out of left field. As Mark says, I'm willing to listen to some other ideas, as long as we don't expose the taxpayer to doing it. Now, again, the door's open, and we'll get there."
The FDIC continues to strongly support the creation of a fund, arguing that the banking industry should pay for its own risk up front. "Clearly we think it is very important to have a resolution fund capitalized in advance by the industry to provide working capital to maintain franchise value as an institution is resolved," said Andrew Gray, a spokesman for the agency. "If anything, it's a taxpayer protection fund, ensuring that the FDIC would not have to borrow from Treasury [taxpayers] for the resolution and making sure that banks pay up front and eliminate the procyclical problems of funding after the fact."
The resolution fund appears to be a key point in ongoing negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on reg reform. Senate leaders plan to bring the bill to the floor as early as Thursday whether there is GOP support or not.
Dodd said he remained optimistic some Republican members will support the bill. "I'm hopeful this week, with all the efforts that we've been making over the last number of months, that we can come to an agreement," the Connecticut Democrat said. "It's time now to act. We've had a lot of the conversations, there's still room for some more, but the talking is almost over and now we need to move and make decisions about whether or not we're going to support this legislation."
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has been campaigning for the bill to key Republicans and met separately Monday with moderate GOP members Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Olympia Snowe.
After her meeting, Snowe said she was primarily focused on removing the $50 billion fund and any loopholes that could allow regulators to rescue an institution. She also raised concerns that a proposed consumer protection division could reduce credit availability to small businesses.
Still, Snowe hinted she would support the bill, even if other Republican's don't, if some changes are made.
"I'm always willing to be the only Republican if it is the right thing and it is important to do the right thing in this," she said. "And hopefully we can get the bipartisan support to do it."
Collins sounded less optimistic, saying a bipartisan bill might be possible if Republicans had three or four more weeks to discuss the bill. She said some of her concerns would be alleviated by removing the $50 billion fund, but she also said there should be more explicit capital requirements in the legislation.
"The key is higher capital requirements so they don't get too big in the first place," she said.
Lawmakers are also working on derivatives legislation that is designed to be included with the reform bill. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln unveiled a tough bill Friday that would ban banks from acting as swaps dealers if they enjoyed federal benefits such as access to the Federal Reserve Board's discount window or deposit insurance.
It is unclear whether Democrats will make changes to bring on Republican support or if the administration can push the bill through in its current form.
A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that the plan was to bring the bill up late in the week and the "hope" was that Republicans would support it.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that although his concerns about the fund have been vindicated by President Obama's request to remove it, "Other concerns about the Dodd bill remain, like the impact on small businesses and job creation. But I'm confident those too can be addressed because of the clear bipartisan support for improving this bill. It's my hope that we can work together to close the remaining bailout loopholes that would put American taxpayers on the hook for financial institutions that become 'too big to fail.'