Loss makes it tougher for Democrats to pass financial overhaul bill

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / June 29, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The death of Senator Robert C. Byrd could significantly complicate plans to approve a major overhaul of financial industry rules this week, a priority for President Obama.

Senate Democrats, who were already dealing with a razor-thin margin of support, will have to persuade up to four Republicans to help them fend off a GOP filibuster when the plan, which Byrd backed, comes up for a vote.

That would not be a problem if all four Republicans who supported the Senate version of the bill last month would also support the final compromise bill, which was completed Friday by House and Senate negotiators.

But Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts was one of those four, and he has distanced himself from a key part of the new bill. Although he won several provisions in the negotiations, on Friday afternoon he said he was opposed to $19 billion in new bank taxes that were inserted. “I’ve said repeatedly that I cannot support any bill that raises taxes,’’ he said. The three other Republicans who voted for the Senate bill — Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine — have not said whether they support the compromise legislation.

The House is expected to vote as early as today; the Senate vote would follow, though no date has been set. Democratic leaders had wanted to send the bill to Obama by July 4, but the final vote may now be delayed.

Byrd’s successor will be appointed by West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, a Democrat, until an election. Manchin told the Associated Press there is no timetable for the appointment, making it unlikely someone will be in place for votes this week.

For now, that means Democrats control 58 votes in the Senate, two shy of the 60 they need to break a Republican filibuster.

On financial overhaul, two Democrats — Maria Cantwell of Washington and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin — have consistently voted against the plan, saying it should limit banking practices more aggressively.

If Cantwell and Feingold continue to oppose the bill, Democrats would need four Republicans. One possibility would be to persuade the two Democrats to vote to shut off debate — the procedural motion that requires 60 votes to prevent a filibuster — and then free them up to vote against its final passage.

Cantwell’s spokesman said she was reviewing the bill and had not taken a position.

Feingold remains adamantly opposed. “My test for the financial regulatory reform bill is whether it will prevent another crisis,’’ he said in a statement. “The conference committee’s proposal fails that test and for that reason I will not vote to advance it.’’

Byrd’s death could impact several other pending issues. Senate Democrats have been trying for weeks to gather enough votes to pass a bill that would extend unemployment benefits for the longterm jobless, alter tax codes, and extend higher Medicaid funding for states.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Matt Viser can be reached at