Chris Dodd banks on Banking panel post in his reelection bid

Sen. Chris Dodd is banking on Banking.

And as its still-chairman, getting something done there could determine whether he will be a senator, much less a chairman, in 2011.

Faced with the most difficult reelection bid in the Senate next year, the three-decade senator rolled the dice Wednesday and opted to stay where he is as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. He had considered taking control of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) panel following Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) death.

Neither committee offered great political prospects, but both provided strong opportunities for Dodd (D-Conn.) to accomplish something big. In HELP, the healthcare bill has been a tough slog and the debate has been re-centered on the Finance Committee, while the Banking Committee is next in line for arduous reforms and will remind people of the bad things that happened in that industry on Dodd’s watch.

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In the end, Dodd chose to remain at the helm of the Banking Committee in hopes that he can steer a troubled sector in the right direction and move the focus away from his personal and political problems of the last year.

Dodd has said that if he takes care of business at his job, the politics would take care of itself.

Dodd supporter and Democratic consultant Roy Occhiogrosso said the senator might have made things harder on himself by doing the right thing.

“To know that the next big reform fight is coming and to be willing to stick your neck out there is, I think, courageous,” Occhiogrosso said. “And anytime you put yourself in that position, there is some risk involved.”

Sacred Heart University political scientist Gary Rose said he was surprised at the decision.

“I thought that he would want to put as much distance between himself and the whole issue of banking as possible,” Rose said. “The healthcare reform issue would have actually, for political reasons, definitely strengthened his chances for reelection.”

One of the untapped general-election issues of next year’s race is how Dodd was running for president while the banking industry began its descent.

Republicans see this as a top issue to use against the senator and weren’t shy about bringing it out when he considered the HELP chairmanship.

“Sen. Dodd’s botched oversight of the Banking and Housing Committee, influenced by millions of dollars in lobbyist and financial services industry campaign donations, led to the greatest economic calamity of our lifetime,” former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) said Wednesday.

State Sen. Sam Caligiuri (R-Conn.) said two weeks ago that Dodd would be abdicating his responsibilities by leaving the Banking Committee at the height of the crisis. Caligiuri launched a petition urging Dodd to stay where he was.

Dodd wasn’t too keen on talking about his reelection Wednesday, but he stressed that the work is important.

“In terms of the election implications, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a responsibility, and we don’t want a repetition of last year.”

Dodd said it was a “tough call to make.”

“Obviously, the major reform efforts of financial regulation are in front of us,” he said. “I want to get this done.”

Dodd said he was hesitant to put a deadline on legislation, but hoped to move a large bill by the end of this year or early next year.

Senate staff for Dodd and Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the committee, have been meeting over the recess period to draft legislation.

Shelby said he’s happy to continue working with Dodd.

“I am glad he is staying, because we have a good relationship which goes all the way back to when we [were] in the House,” he said.

Overhauling the nation’s financial laws remains a top priority for the Obama administration and congressional lawmakers. But while the administration drafted hundreds of pages of legislative proposals for Congress to debate, the healthcare debate has come to dominate attention on Capitol Hill.

The administration has proposed creating a new agency to oversee consumer financial products, a consolidation of two of the country’s banking regulations, new restrictions on financial derivatives and new powers for the Federal Reserve to oversee systemic risk.

The nation’s main financial regulators have lashed out at different parts of the proposals, while the financial services lobby has revved up its opposition.

Republicans and Democrats remain split on many key parts of the administration’s plan, particularly the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is leading a multimillion-dollar effort against the proposal with advertising, media outreach and grassroots efforts.

Consumer advocates pressing for the new agency were heartened by Dodd’s decision. While he has received large campaign contributions in the past from the financial industry, much of which is based in Connecticut, consumer groups cheered Dodd’s work on legislation earlier this year to rein in the credit card industry.

“Without him — his sort of commitment to the proposal and also continuity at the committee — it would have been hard to do this legislation,” said Travis

Plunkett, legislative director at the Consumer Federation of America.

Others weren’t so convinced Dodd’s decision will have much of an effect.

“I think it’s a non-news story, quite frankly,” said Richard Hunt, president of the Consumer Bankers Association. “I think this legislation was going to go at the same speed regardless of who was chairman. … If there is a continued commitment to make this a bipartisan piece of legislation, it’s going to take time [and] compromise.”

Despite the decision, Dodd isn’t forfeiting ownership of the healthcare bill. In fact, he will remain in charge of the HELP Committee’s work on healthcare reform, according to its newly crowned chairman, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

“He started it, he spent a lot of time on it, and he should finish it,” Harkin said, adding that he proposed the arrangement to Dodd.

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Dodd took leadership on the issue after Kennedy became ill, but the Senate Finance Committee — and its chairman, Max Baucus (D-Mont.) — is expected to play a major role in shaping the final legislation, taking some onus off the HELP Committee.

That HELP Committee arrangement will keep Dodd at least somewhat in the hot seat. He would also play a key role on a conference committee should the House and Senate pass healthcare bills this year.

Harkin also said Dodd could assume the HELP Committee chairmanship and Harkin could return as head of the Agriculture Committee during the 112th Congress.

Jeffrey Young and Roxana Tiron contributed to this article.