Udall to introduce Senate version of ‘Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights’

Newly-minted Sen. Mark Udall (D-Col.), has scheduled a press call this afternoon to announce his plans to introduce legislation to end the abusive practices of credit card issuers. This isn’t enormous news — as a member of the House, Udall had strongly supported the lower chamber’s version of the Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), and he has vowed since the election to introduce the same bill in the Senate.

But his push in the Senate is interesting for several reasons.

Until now, most of the efforts to rein in the credit card industry have been limited to the House. Led by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the House Financial Services Committee held several hearings last year, and the lower chamber passed Maloney’s bill in September. But…

Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), who chairs the Banking Committee, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also have a credit card bill — a proposal that goes even further than the Maloney/Udall bill to protect credit card users. Consumer advocates have been loud supporters of both bills, but would likely prefer the Senate bill for these extra protections.

But, of course, the banks vehemently oppose any new restrictions, and anyone who doubts the industry’s sway in Washington forgets that Congress has directed trillions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street in the past 12 months. That influence trascends party. A tough credit card bill would likely find fierce opposition not only from Senate Republicans, but from moderate Senate Democrats, particularly those representing big-bank hubs like Delaware and South Dakota. Bank supporters will no doubt point out the current financial troubles the industry is suffering (sidestepping, of course, that the banks themselves are largely to blame), and they’ll argue that 2009 is not the year to pass a credit card bill that would further pinch bank profits — even if it’s done to protect consumers.

Also, The Fed in December unveiled new restrictions on credit card issuers. Consumer groups and reform-minded Democrats applauded the changes as a good first step, and industry supporters will surely point out that the new rules do plenty to rein in credit card abuses.

However, The Fed’s changes don’t go into effect for another 18 months — hardly in time to help consumers manage their bills through the current recession.

Another factor that could affect this debate: Maloney, who’s been the most vocal proponent of credit card reform, is now vying to fill the Senate seat soon to be vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who’s just a few short steps away from becoming secretary of state in the Obama administration. With that contest on her plate, Maloney will have less time to push her “Bill of Rights.”

It’s quite an equation to crunch, so don’t look for any predictions here.

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Mike Lillis

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