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House Eases Wall Street Regulations

A bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives voted late Thursday to make it easier for corporations to engage in complex derivatives trades without government restrictions, eroding the reach of proposed regulations to govern Wall Street.

Democratic attempts to toughen the legislation failed.

Though not major setbacks, the votes illustrated the difficulties facing House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank and the Obama administration as they seek to pass legislation aimed at preventing a recurrence of last year's Wall Street crisis.

Key votes loomed ahead, with a final vote on the sweeping legislation scheduled Friday.

Democrats hoped to fend off an amendment Friday that would eliminate the creation of an independent Consumer Finance Protection Agency. The agency is a central element of the Democrats' legislation and the Obama administration's proposed regulatory changes.

The amendment was offered by Rep. Walt Minnick, a conservative Democrat, and seven other centrist Democrats. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been running national television ads against the creation of a consumer agency, said it would base its support for lawmakers in next year's elections, in part, on how they voted on the amendment.

Creating a consumer agency is a top priority for consumer groups and for labor organizations such as the AFL-CIO.

Democratic leaders also were pushing changes that would add further restrictions on banks and financial institutions. One, vigorously opposed by banks, would let bankruptcy judges rewrite mortgages to lower homeowners' monthly payments.

A coalition of banking organizations on Thursday sent lawmakers a letter urging them to vote against the amendment. The House previously passed bankruptcy-mortgage legislation, but it failed in the Senate.

The legislation imposes new regulations on derivatives, aiming to prevent manipulation in and bring transparency to a $600 trillion global market. But an amendment by Democrat Scott Murphy, adopted 304-124 Thursday night, exempted businesses that trade in derivatives, not as financial speculators, but to hedge against market fluctuations such as currency rates or gasoline prices. The amendment also provided an exception for businesses that are not considered too big to be a risk to the financial system.

A Democratic effort to make more companies subject to derivatives regulation failed 279-150.

The Chamber of Commerce circulated a letter Thursday urging lawmakers to vote for the Murphy amendment and against the broader regulation.

The House debate comes more than a year after the downfall of Wall Street banking house Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. panicked the financial markets and forced an unprecedented intervention by the federal government. The Senate is expected to consider a bill next year.

Backing for the overall bill splits along party lines. Republicans cast the legislation as a continuation of unpopular financial industry bailouts, while Democrats portray the Republicans as reflexively opposed to any controls on Wall Street.

Democratic leaders have focused on their own ranks, however. They had to scramble Wednesday after party centrists rebelled and threatened to delay the bill if the House was not allowed to vote on their proposed amendments.

At issue were changes they sought to ease regulatory provisions on consumer protections and complex derivatives trades. The impasse broke, but only after top Democrats spent more than an hour with high-level Treasury Department officials in Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi's offices crafting a compromise.

Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean succeeded in getting her consumer protection limits inserted into Frank's version of the bill. Her provision would make it harder for states to enforce their own consumer protection rules on national banks. Under the compromise, states would not be able to pre-empt federal consumer laws if the state law "materially" interferes with the business of banks.

"It's solid progress in the effort to provide consistency and uniformity to the American consumer," said Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, an industry group.

The broader legislation hits big banks hardest, a response to public anger at the notion that some institutions had grown too big to fail and pushed the nation's financial system to the brink of collapse.

It would create a Financial Services Oversight Council to monitor the financial system and watch for future threats. Large, interconnected firms would have to put more money into their reserves. They would have to feed a $150 billion fund to cover the costs of dismantling a failing competitor. And even if healthy, they could be forced to downsize if they are deemed a grave threat to the economy.

"American families will no longer be at the mercy of the Wall Street in terms of their jobs, their homes, their pension security, the education of their children," said Pelosi.

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