Financial Reform: Petitions vs. Lobbyists

Main Street's voter petitions are up against Wall Street's army of lobbyists as the financial reform debate nears crunch time.
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NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- While Main Street headed to lawmakers' doorsteps with thousands of voter petitions on Wednesday to sway the debate on financial reform, Wall Street and corporate America were spending big bucks on lobbyists.

Both sides have just a matter of days.

A leading consumer-rights coalition was striving to assert its dominance in the dialogue by reminding lawmakers that voters are keeping a close eye on the outcome. Representatives from Americans for Financial Reform planned to visit lawmakers' offices in 25 cities to deliver petitions from "thousands of constituents," urging them to pass tough measures.

"Today members of Congress will get a message directly from Americans -- we're watching what's happening with Wall Street reform and we need you to stand up for Main Street," said Heather Booth, director of Americans for Financial Reform.

As AFR traipsed from Red Lake Falls, Minn., to Kansas City with petitions in hand, corporate lobbyists were

scrambling across Washington, D.C. in their own last-ditch effort to grab

lawmakers' ears. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce organized a more modern type of grassroots campaign

on the Web. Since the start of 2009, the top 10 lobbying firms have pulled in fees of more than $30 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

There are just a few more days left for lawmakers to hammer out a compromise for the Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010, which is supposed to be on President Obama's desk by the Fourth of July weekend. But Americans seem eager to oust incumbents regardless of political stripe, and several negotiators in the

reform conference face an uphill re-election battle this fall.

As a result, some Democratic conferees are relying on finreg to shore up their "get tough on Wall Street" credibility, and potentially catapult them to success in the mid-term elections. Republicans appear to be sticking to a strategy of intransigence, with most refusing to vote "yea" on any measure that originated in the Obama camp.

Accordingly, Americans for Financial Reform -- a coalition of

dozens of consumer, labor, investor and left-leaning political groups, including AARP, AFL-CIO, NAACP, SEIU and U.S. PIRG -- is stepping up its push to let lawmakers know that Main Street means business when it comes to Wall Street reform.

"We want this legislation finished swiftly, but it must actually hold big banks accountable for their reckless behavior," said AFR's Booth.

The group portrayed its campaign as a grassroots effort against the more traditional and better-funded lobbying effort led by top financial and corporate trade groups like the American Bankers Association, SIFMA and the Chamber of Commerce.

The ranks of those organizations include hundreds of giant corporations, including

Bank of America

(BAC) - Get Report

,

Citigroup

(C) - Get Report

,

JPMorgan Chase

(JPM) - Get Report

,

Wells Fargo

(WFC) - Get Report

,

Goldman Sachs

(GS) - Get Report

and

Morgan Stanley

(MS) - Get Report

on the financial side, and a wide array of companies on the corporate side, such as

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

,

Caterpillar

(CAT) - Get Report

,

IBM

(IBM) - Get Report

,

Coca-Cola

(KO) - Get Report

and

Exxon

(XOM) - Get Report

.

"Big Banks and the Chamber might have deep pockets, but we have the power of the people," Booth said. "Congress must keep us in mind as they complete work on this bill."

Information trickling out of the conference changes rapidly, and the tenor is described quite differently by various news outlets. Some headlines characterize the reform bill -- and Democrats -- as getting tougher, and others characterize it as getting softer, all at the same time.

Americans for Financial Reform planned to visit Sen.

Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), the leading proponent of tough measures on derivatives, at 2 p.m. in Little Rock. There have lately been indications that she was

willing to soften her proposal amid pressure from other lawmakers and the Obama administration.

The other members on AFR's list included conferees whose positions are unclear, or who may require a little extra swaying toward the Main Street side. There were at least 14 Democrats on the list, including some centrists like Melissa Bean (D., Ill.), who has been a vocal opponent to Lincoln's measure. But just a handful of Republicans were included, perhaps an indication of their staunch opposition to passing yet another sweeping Obama bill.

-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York

.