If there's any election-year support in the Senate for future bailouts of the big banks on Wall Street, it isn't immediately apparent.
Instead, President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies compete daily with Republicans for the title of opponent in chief, and six months before midterm elections the fate of legislation to regulate the financial industry remains clouded.
Democratic legislation "not only allows for taxpayer-funded bailouts of Wall Street banks; it institutionalizes them," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said recently.
Obama responded a few days later in his weekly radio and Internet address, accusing McConnell and another top Republican of meeting with Wall Street executives to discuss ways to block the legislation. Not long afterward, he said, they made "the cynical and deceptive assertion that reform would somehow enable future bailouts when he knows that it would do just the opposite."
By Wednesday, 10 days later, Republicans and Democrats involved in negotiations said they had made progress toward a compromise bill that could command support on both sides of the aisle. They released no details, though, and Democrats held out the possibility of forcing a test vote on Monday.
At stake in the legislation is the extent to which the government will tighten its control over large banks following the near-collapse of the economy. The regulation of derivatives, credit default swaps, reserve requirements and other items understood scarcely at all by many consumers remains to be settled.
If the subject matter is complex, the political subtext is evident.
McConnell won a new term in 2008 after a campaign spent explaining his unpopular vote for TARP, the bailout program that former President George W. Bush supported as his administration neared an end. Obama also backed the legislation, but that didn't stop the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from running ads in the fall of 2008 attacking the Republican Party leader for his vote.
The legislation is part of Obama's pre-election agenda at the tail end of the worst recession in decades, with unemployment at or near double digits in much of the country and public mistrust of government spiking to nearly 80 percent in a recent Pew survey.
Majority Democrats fear a significant setback in November that could hamper Obama's ability to advance his agenda for the next two years. Republicans sense the opportunity for a comeback after a year and a half spent criticizing the administration and opposing its initiatives.
Tea party activists add another unpredictable element to the campaign.
The same brew led to a fiercely partisan struggle over health care that ended with passage of Obama's legislation without any Republican support.
But now, Republicans hold 41 seats in the Senate, enough to block Democrats from ignoring their objections.
"This is the first time the power of 41 is being put on the table. It's having an effect," said Eric Ueland, a former top Republican aide in the Senate. Ueland said that until GOP Sen. Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts in January, Democrats could pass legislation only with votes from their own rank and file.
That's no longer possible, he said, "and in this new era I think the majority uneasily is adjusting itself to that fact."
For their part, Democrats point out that a handful of Republicans have made it clear they want to support legislation, meaning McConnell couldn't be sure of prevailing in a showdown. The GOP rhetoric of opposition has softened noticeably.
Some Republicans "realize that they oppose this at their peril," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
In typical Senate fashion, a series of events has unfolded making it difficult if not impossible to tell which side is retreating.
At a recent White House meeting, according to officials who were in attendance, Obama expressed the hope for bipartisanship. McConnell replied that White House aides had pressured Democrats to call off negotiations with Republicans on key elements of the legislation, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Late last week — one day before Obama returned McConnell's criticism — Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner indicated he favored jettisoning a provision from the bill creating a $50 billion fund that Republicans claimed would lead to bailouts.
Democrats have since made clear they are willing to drop the fund. But according to officials, some members of the rank and file made clear in a closed-door meeting earlier in the week they didn't want to give McConnell and Republicans a political victory without getting something in return.
Months before the elections, claiming credit is part of the legislative process.
The Senate Agriculture Committee approved legislation on Wednesday to restrict banks' ability to trade financial products such as corn futures or stock options that rely on the value of underlying investments. Companies use these so-called derivatives to hedge against risks.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa was the only Republican to support the measure, and he cautioned his vote didn't necessarily mean he would support the larger financial regulation bill.
But Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., who chairs the committee and faces a primary challenge next month, immediately sought political advantage.
The panel's action marked a "significant step toward bringing real reform to our nation's financial markets, providing the transparency and accountability that the American people deserve in a bipartisan way," she said in a statement posted to her campaign website.
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