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Frank checks tongue as he wields power

Partisan warrior is now consensus-builder

Barney Frank says his post allows him to tackle issues of economic fairness. Barney Frank says his post allows him to tackle issues of economic fairness. (SUSAN WALSH/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON - The press release would announce a hearing on the US mortgage crisis, and Representative Barney Frank, chairman of House Financial Services Committee, wanted it to reference the recent turmoil in financial markets. Then he stopped himself.

"I can't say 'turmoil in the markets,' " Frank said. "Then there'll be turmoil in the markets."

For perhaps the first time in his life, the hip-shooting, wisecracking Frank is watching what he says. Since January, when he ascended to the leadership of the committee overseeing the sprawling financial industry, he has had to keep in mind that the wrong word at the wrong time can send markets tumbling. As a result, he admitted, he's been a little boring.

But it's a price the famously sharp-tongued lawmaker is happy to pay. After more than 30 years in politics, and 12 in the wilderness of a Republican Congress, Frank, 67, is setting the agenda on issues from housing to securities regulation to international development.

He's already pushed through the committee legislation to develop more affordable housing; give investors greater influence over corporate executive pay; and remove barriers to divestment from rogue countries Iran and Sudan.

He's at the center of efforts to address the nation's exploding foreclosure problem and update a regulatory system that proved unable to curb the worst mortgage lending abuses.

He's tackling questions of economic fairness, the growing gap between rich and poor, and the uneven distribution of benefits in the global financial system. He's putting into practice long-held beliefs that government has a role for good to play in people's lives.

"The only acceptable reason to be in politics, is that you have a view of public policy that you want to have enacted," said Frank, a Democrat from Newton. "I am now in a position to affect public policy more than I ever thought I would."

For Frank, his chairmanship is putting on display leadership, management, and coalition-building skills that seem a departure for a politician who thrived in opposition. That role was tailor-made for his savage wit and withering retorts, and he emerged as one of the Democrats' fiercest partisans during the years of GOP control. He rarely missed a chance to zing Republicans.

In 2004, for example, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who supported the US invasion of Iraq, was ousted in an election just as the then Republican-led Financial Services Committee was to vote to award him the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian award.

Frank, an Iraq war opponent, offered an amendment to award Aznar a silver medal "because he came in second place." Aznar never got either medal.

"I became partisan in the '80s when the Republican Party moved to the right," Frank said last week. "People said, 'When will you stop being so partisan?' I said, 'When they stop being so wrong.' "

But Frank as a partisan warrior is an incomplete portrait, say lawmakers from both parties. Over more than a quarter century in Congress, Frank has mastered both the issues and the legislative process.

"You can work with Barney," said US Representative Michael Capuano, Democrat of Somerville and a member of the Financial Services Committee. "He'll take your issues into consideration. He'll help you if he can. If he can't, he tells you."

US Representative Spencer Bachus, Republican of Alabama and the ranking GOP member on the Financial Services Committee, said Frank understands that legislation only gets passed with consensus. As a result, he reaches out to lawmakers of both parties, Bachus said, knowing that bills rarely go far if lawmakers are closely divided.

"Any time you can get a conservative Republican and liberal Democrat to agree there's a need for legislation, that's a good thing," said Bachus. "He wants more government intervention and participation than I do, but we both agree that if you're going to have a free-market system, it has to be fair and equitable, and there has to be rules."

In recent weeks, Frank has even reached out to the Bush administration in tackling the crisis in subprime mortgages, the higher-interest loans made to borrowers with tarnished credit. After President Bush offered proposals to help tens of thousands of homeowners avoid foreclosure, Frank welcomed the initiative, pointing out that the president had agreed that government has a role.

Frank subsequently rearranged the committee's schedule to devote a full hearing to Bush's proposals on Sept. 20. At a hearing last week, which focused on the impact of the subprime crisis on the broader economy and featured testimony from administration officials, Frank steered his colleagues from trying to score partisan points on the subprime issue, cutting off questions for which the officials might have been unprepared.

"From a partisan point of view, it would have been better to allow questions, and have them give unpopular answers," Frank said later. "But I want to get things accomplished. From a public policy standpoint, I think I can get better answers in two weeks."

But some longtime supporters believe Frank has become too conciliatory.

"He feels he has a responsibility to find common ground, but when someone is losing his home, there is no common ground," said Bruce Marks, chief executive of Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, an advocacy group and nonprofit mortgage lender. "We need him the way he used to be, the junkyard dog who would go after these predators and wouldn't let go until he won."

Frank has served on the Financial Services Committee since 1981, originally attracted there by its housing jurisdiction.

Now, as chairman, he needs to understand the entire array of banking, securities, and other issues the committee oversees. He no longer can focus on just one or two, and the demands on his time have grown dramatically.

Still, he hasn't become completely boring. Last week, when scheduled to run a financial services hearing as well as testify for a gay rights bill at another hearing, he wore a pin-striped suit and lavender tie. "A sartorial compromise," explained Frank, the first openly gay congressman.

Ultimately, Frank said, he wants to show that a liberal can help the financial industry prosper, while protecting consumers and ensuring fairness.

The crisis in the largely unregulated subprime mortgage market, and its spread to the broader economy, provides a "teaching moment" of what happens when government sits completely on the sidelines, Frank said.

The pendulum, he added, is swinging from the "government is the problem" philosophy that dominated American politics in the past quarter century, putting him in the right place, at the right time.

"I have been banging away at this economic inequality stuff for a long time," he said. "And now, I have all these friends high up in the financial industry."

Robert Gavin can be reached at rgavin@globe.com.

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