WASHINGTON—The Senate approved a wide-ranging overhaul of the nation’s financial regulations Thursday, handing President Barack Obama his second major domestic-policy victory of the year.
The legislation passed, 60-39, largely along party lines. Republicans Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, joined Democrats in supporting the bill. Sen. Russ Feingold (D., Wisc.) was the only Democrat to vote against the measure.
The GOP votes were only secured in recent days after some last-minute changes were made to satisfy concerns of the Republican swing voters over how to pay for the bill.
The bill, which Mr. Obama expects to sign into law next week, marks a sea change for the financial-services industry. Mammoth financial firms such as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bank of America Corp. face major changes to almost every part of their businesses, from debit cards to derivatives trading and the ability to invest in hedge funds.
Not only will they face new leverage and capital requirements, but also regulators with broad new authority to curb or outlaw risky behavior. The changes are in store despite Wall Street’s aggressive efforts over the last year to water down or derail the bill.
The measure, once implemented, will touch all areas of the financial markets, affecting how consumers obtain credit cards and mortgages, dictating how the government dismantles failing financial firms and directing federal regulators’ focus on potential flashpoints in the economy.
The legislation will radically alter the way regulators work to assess and respond to potential flashpoints in the economy. The Federal Reserve will be empowered to supervise the largest and most complex financial firms, working in tandem with a new Financial Stability Oversight Council made up of financial regulators that will have the ability to act aggressively against potential risks.
Minutes after the bill’s passage, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the legislation “represents a welcome and far-reaching step toward preventing a replay of the recent financial crisis.”
The work of remaking the financial-regulatory regime, however, remains far from finished.
Thursday’s vote effectively opens a second phase of lobbying and policy making as financial regulators begin to shape the rules and framework laid out in the legislation. That rule-making process will determine how the new law affects those ranging from traders of complicated derivatives to consumers shopping for a mortgage or a credit card.
“This vote this afternoon is a starting point, not an ending point,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.) said on the Senate floor.
Lawmakers had to negotiate a variety of flashpoints throughout the yearlong process to craft the legislation. Key sticking points included the creation of an agency to police financial products offered to consumers, how exotic derivatives products should be regulated and how to limit the riskiest practices of the nation’s biggest banks.
The final legislation endorses a series of compromises on those issues. The Obama administration’s push to create a consumer agency was agreed to, though lawmakers and industry groups secured some limited exemptions for certain types of firms. That agency will also be tasked with drawing up and enforcing new rules for mortgage lending included in the bill and aimed at preventing the abuses that helped contribute to the housing collapse.
Lawmakers also settled on a more limited proposal to require federally backed banks to split off their lucrative swaps-trading businesses. Banks will be required to move some of their trading operations to affiliated companies and face new limits on their ability to make investments in hedge and private-equity funds.
Regulators would also for the first time be given the authority to seize and break up large financial- services firms that pose a risk to the broader economy or are on the brink of collapse.
The delicate compromises and arm-twisting continued until just a few days before the final vote. Senate Banking Chairman Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) labored to corral the 60 votes he would need to overcome the procedural roadblocks Republicans planned to throw in the measure’s way.
In search of votes, House and Senate Democrats took the rare step of reopening the House and Senate “conference” negotiations to replace a provision paying for the legislation through a multibillion-dollar fee on large banks and hedge funds. The proposal raised protests from several Senate Republicans on whose support the bill depended, especially Sen. Scott Brown (R., Mass.).
Instead, lawmakers adopted a two-pronged approach to covering the bill’s estimated $16 billion cost by forcing an early end to the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program and increasing the deposit-insurance fee paid by banks to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The change led Mr. Brown, Ms. Collins and Ms. Snowe to announce they would vote for the final bill.
The largely party-line vote illustrated the rift between Republicans and Democrats on how the government should respond to the 2008 financial crisis. That debate continued Thursday.
“The legislation empowers consumers and also transparency in the financial system,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D., R.I.) at a press conference. “You’re either voting for the American people…or you’re voting for entrenched financial interests.”
By contrast, Republicans insisted the heavy new regulations would force jobs overseas. They also said it would hurt small businesses while not dealing with the fundamental problems of the economy.
The Senate Agriculture Committee’s ranking Republican, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said new rules for over-the-counter derivatives would hamper small and medium-size businesses’ access to credit.
“This legislation will enable regulators to impose restrictions on businesses that had absolutely nothing to do with the financial crisis,” he said.
Grading the Bill
Economists and other prominent members of the financial community gave the overhaul legislation mixed reviews, with some saying it would do nothing to stop another financial crisis from occurring and others saying it was a good first step toward a new financial system.
All eyes will be watching how the regulatory agencies charged with putting the law into practice determine critical issues like the definition of “too big to fail.”
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