Judd Gregg, Obama Senate foe, now key to passing financial bill

McClatchy NewspapersJune 7, 2010 

WASHINGTON — A group of lawmakers who are about to write an historic overhaul of the nation's financial regulatory system has been stacked carefully with veteran compromisers — and one wild card.

That's Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a flinty Yankee individualist who briefly was set to be President Barack Obama's commerce secretary before he changed his mind. Gregg's expected to be the leading proponent of GOP and financial sector views, and therefore a key player in shaping the final legislation.

Gregg, who's retiring from the Senate after this year, thinks some features of the legislation that initially passed the Senate and the House of Representatives amount to dangerous liberalism. He's unenthusiastic about expanding government oversight of banks and other financial institutions, and creating a powerful new agency to protect consumers' financial interests.

"This is more of the global agenda of the left to take control of the marketplace and promote their social justice agenda," Gregg told McClatchy in an interview.

Nor does he like a provision that'd make it easier for dissidents to offer a counter slate of candidates for election to corporate boards. Some fear that could expand unions' influence.

"This is the industrial policy of the social left," he muttered.

This is the same senator whom Obama offered a cabinet post last year, which the quirky Granite Stater initially accepted, then awkwardly turned down days later.

Gregg is simply hard to figure.

In the interview, he pointed to many areas where negotiators are likely to find common ground, ranging from shareholder say on executive pay to "legit" concerns about reining in banks' abilities to gamble with depositor money.

What divides lawmakers, he said, isn't conventional politics.

"This bill doesn't break down conservative-liberal. This bill breaks down populist-rational," he said. He cited a desire in both parties to punish Wall Street and show voters that Congress can get tough with the financial sector, but he fears that could go too far.

Financial interests, which also fear the bill will overreach, hope Gregg can bridge differences.

"He will help to serve as an honest broker to achieve consensus among the conferees," said Scott Talbott, the chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, the trade group for big financial firms.

Gregg, however, worried whether voices such as his will be taken seriously.

"I don't know that we'll be invited into the room," he said.

Democrats say that not only will Gregg be invited in, he also could become a crucial voice as deliberations progress.

"We will have a conference, I think, that will work well," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

The House passed its bill in December and the Senate approved its version last month. Negotiators from the two chambers are expected to begin meeting later this week to iron out differences. The Senate will have a dozen conferees, seven Democrats and five Republicans. House leaders have not yet named conferees.

Lawmakers hope to have final legislation ready for passage before leaders of the world's industrialized nations meet in Canada later this month.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top committee Republican, have fundamental disagreements over regulation, but have worked together to push the legislation this far.

They achieved some bipartisan success: The Senate bill attracted four Republican votes, and GOP senators were allowed to offer almost as many amendments as Democrats, but the stakes are now higher.

The key to whether the final legislation passes the House and Senate with bare Democratic majorities or wins bipartisan support could rest with Gregg — but predicting Gregg is hard to do.

"He seems to want it both ways," said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, N.H. "He's fired a shot across the bow, but at the end of the day, there's always been this practical side to him."

Gregg's part of a powerful New Hampshire family; his father, Hugh Gregg, was once governor and an important GOP figure for decades. Judd Gregg, 63, has never lost a New Hampshire election, serving four terms as a House member, then four years as governor before winning election to the Senate in 1992.

Unlike many senators, Gregg doesn't expect to stay in Washington after his term ends in January.

"I'll be back in New Hampshire, doing something interesting I hope, but I haven't decided what," he said.

While he's compiled a solid conservative voting record, Gregg's known for his calm — if sometimes ornery — style. After the flap over the Commerce job, Gregg seemed to turn crankier. A month after turning down the post, Gregg warned in the GOP's Saturday radio address that Obama was engineering an "extraordinary move of our government to the left."

The possibility of such polarizing talk will keep spotlights trained on Gregg during the coming negotiations.

"Ever since he turned down Obama, he's been a thorn in his side. Maybe he feels he has more freedom now," said Dante Scala, the chairman of the political science department at the University of New Hampshire.

ON THE WEB

Senate roll call on financial regulation

Senate Banking Committee report on financial overhaul bill

Senate Agriculture Committee report on derivatives bill"

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