The Obama administration went on the attack Wednesday against the country's biggest business lobby over its resistance to financial rules as Democrats and the White House voiced new optimism that sweeping Wall Street regulations could be completed within months.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that a reworking of the financial system was sorely needed and that an attempted obstruction by the Chamber was misguided.
"It is so puzzling that despite the urgent and undeniable need for reform, the Chamber of Commerce has launched a $3 million advertising campaign against it," Wolin told a business audience as it lunched beneath chandeliers at the organization's ornate headquarters a block from the White House.
Wolin's remarks — and a White House meeting between President Barack Obama and leading administration and congressional authors of the regulatory overhaul — signaled a new determination to make reining in Wall Street the next presidential priority.
The legislation working its way through Congress, prompted by the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, would be the most sweeping change in financial regulations since the New Deal. It would give the government unprecedented powers to split up firms considered a threat to the economy, put together a council of regulators to watch for risks in the financial system and create an independent consumer watchdog.
Republican unity, meanwhile, was showing signs of strain. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who tried and failed to negotiate an agreement with Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, questioned the Republican decision this week to let the bill go to the Senate floor without a compromise.
"I just think that it is a strategic mistake," Corker said in an interview Wednesday. "This is a very different issue than health care. Most everyone in the House and Senate want to deal with it."
On Monday, the Banking Committee's top Republican, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, withdrew Republican amendments to the bill and let the committee approve a Dodd-written bill by a party-line 13-10 vote. At the time, Shelby said he would continue to negotiate with Dodd, D-Conn.
But Corker said he feared that Republicans no longer had leverage to adjust the bill more to their liking.
At the White House, Obama met with Dodd, House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers to begin plotting strategy for the bill. The House passed its version of the bill in December.
"The President expects that we will finish financial reform in the next couple of months, certainly by the time we mark the second anniversary of the financial collapse in the early fall," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Asked after the meeting whether the Senate could pass a bill by Memorial Day, Dodd said: "My hope would be even before then, if possible."
Dodd will still need at least one Republican to support the legislation to avoid procedural obstacles that require 60 votes to overcome. Right now Republicans control 41 votes and, thus, the ability to sustain a filibuster.
Shelby this week pointed out that he and Dodd worked out a deal on credit card legislation last year, even after the Banking Committee had approved a version in a straight party-line vote. But Corker said he was uncertain that would work again.
"The credit card issue was a piddly piece of legislation compared to this," Corker said. "This is a significant piece of legislation. There are lot of details that matter."
In sending Wolin to the Chamber of Commerce, an organization with 3 million members and a big bank account, the administration signaled it was not in a compromising mood. The chamber has launched a $3 million campaign against the Dodd plan, specifically targeting his proposed consumer bureau. Obama, on the other hand, has said his intent is to strengthen Dodd's bill wherever possible.
Wolin told the crowd that their organization, "funded, no doubt, with a good deal of your money, has launched a lavish, aggressive and misleading campaign to defeat" the consumer agency.
The audience politely applauded at the end of Wolin's remarks. But Thomas Donohue, the Chamber's president and CEO, told him it was "a bit of a political speech." Later in the day, the chamber's top lobbyist, Bruce Josten, issued a statement describing Wolin's speech as "political grandstanding and distortion of facts."
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