By Mike Soraghan - 12/13/09 10:02 PM EST
Two junior, ardently conservative Republicans have led the fight against President Barack Obama's Wall Street regulatory overhaul, often stealing the show from the ranking Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Spencer Bachus.
Bachus (R-Ala.) managed the time on the floor this week as Republicans unsuccessfully fought the legislation.
"Scott Garrett and Jeb Hensarling have been leading the charge and making certain that the truth about this bill comes out," said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a committee member and Republican Study Committee chairman.
Aides say Hensarling and Garrett's leading roles are no accident. Bachus has been under fire from party conservatives and leaders for being too accommodating to Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.). During bailout negotiations last year GOP leaders undercut him, then yanked him from the negotiating table. At the start of the year, those same leaders considered ousting him as the top Republican on the panel.
But instead, the conservatives worked out a power-sharing agreement. Hensarling and Garrett were given the top Republican slots on key Financial Services subcommittees. Along with Price, they were given prominent roles in drafting the Republican alternative to the Democrats' regulatory overhaul.
"Garrett and Hensarling were empowered to take the heat off Bachus so he could hold onto his slot," explained a Republican aide. "Bachus is not one of the strongest personalities in our caucus. We needed younger, more forceful members to take on Barney, because not everyone can do that."
The pair have half of Bachus's seniority, but they are rising stars in the Republican Study Committee, the organization for conservatives in the House Republican Conference. Hensarling is a former RSC chairman. Bachus is an RSC member, but is not considered to be as conservative as Garrett and Hensarling.
As the Financial Services committee wrote the bill this fall, Hensarling and Garrett, both in their fourth terms, often replaced Bachus in the ranking member's chair, sitting next to Frank, running the Republican side of the show. It was no scheduling conflict. Bachus was often present, sitting one chair down.
And on the eve of the floor debate, while Bachus prepared for a hearing on the bill before the Rules Committee, Hensarling, Garrett and Price summoned reporters to their own press event to make the Republican case against the signature financial legislation of the year.
"I thought it would be helpful to gather the folks who have done really the heavy lifting on the committee side and certainly through the Republican Study Committee on this reg reform bill," Price explained.
And Tuesday, while Bachus was also before the Rules Committee, Republican leaders went ahead with a meeting with financial services lobbyists to coordinate tactics on fighting the bill. Bachus said he arrived at the very end.
Bachus said the power-sharing reflects a team approach, not a lack of confidence in his leadership on the part of conservatives. The nine-term lawmaker noted that he and the ranking members of the Financial Services Subcommittee meet each Tuesday to coordinate.
"I select the ranking members," Bachus said in an interview last week. "We've got a great team."
But Frank casts Bachus's diminished role as evidence of right-wing dominance in the minority party, going back to the subprime loan overhaul in 2007.
"When I first became chairman I had a lot of cooperation with Spencer Bachus," Frank said in an interview. "We worked with Spencer on the subprime bill. Spencer then came under severe criticism from conservative members."
Bachus acknowledges that he's had a different philosophy than party leaders on subprime lending legislation. He proposed his plan, setting new requirements for such loans, in 2005, when Republicans controlled Congress and he was chairman. Then he worked with Frank to pass a subprime bill in the House after Democrats took over.
But Bachus says it's a policy difference that hasn't resulted in political punishment.
"Obviously, there was some strong disagreement," Bachus said. But, "I was never threatened."
Garrett and Hensarling also say their roles complement Bachus rather than replace him. Hensarling said that Bachus's team approach helped House Republicans unite around an alternative regulatory overhaul.
"It may not be traditional, but listen, Spencer believes in allowing people to lead. He's creating a farm team. He's helping empower members," Hensarling said. "There are different coaches with different styles. With Spencer we're able to win."
Though the Democratic bill passed, Republicans viewed their effort as a victory because the party stayed united. No Republicans supported Obama's overhaul, and all Republicans voted for their party's alternative, which would divert money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to deficit reduction.
"I know it may appear, based on Chairman Frank's total domination of his side of the committee, that the leading member on either side must actively dictate every committee member's action," said Garrett spokeswoman Erica Elliott. "However, Ranking Member Bachus has been nothing but gracious, inclusive and encouraging to the members of his committee. I would say that Chairman Frank is the exception, whereas Ranking Member Bachus is the rule."
But it's not seen that way in Washington's financial lobbying community, where Bachus is not seen as a strong leader for the Republicans' pro-business agenda.
"They're stuck," said one financial services lobbyist. "If you remove him, it's an admission you have a problem. You don't want to admit you have a problem."