Sen. Byrd's Death Makes the Financial Reform Vote a Lot Trickier

Senator Robert Byrd
Senator Robert Byrd

The death of Sen. Robert Byrd

, the longtime West Virginia Democrat, could throw a wrench in Democrats' plan to quickly pass the landmark financial reform bill. Senate Democrats have been hoping to pass the bill this week, giving President Barack Obama a key election-year victory and allowing him to sign it before the two-week July 4 recess.

With Sen. Byrd's passing, the Senate now has 58 Democrats and independents who caucus with them -- two short of the 60 votes needed overcome a Republican filibuster and send the bill to the Senate floor for a final vote. It's up to Democratic West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin to appoint a replacement for Byrd, presumably with another Democrat. But Manchin may not move to until after the July 4 recess.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that two Senate Democrats, Maria Cantwell of Washington and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, have opposed the bill. On the other hand, four Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Scott Brown of Massachusetts have supported the legislation.

Will Brown Reverse Himself?

Without Byrd, Democrats need all four of those Republicans to vote with them, but Brown has already voiced doubts about the bill that emerged from the House-Senate conference committee last Friday. He issued a statement slamming the last-minute inclusion of a 10-year, $20 billion bank and hedge fund tax that Democrats added to make the bill budget-neutral.

"While I'm still reviewing the bill's details, these provisions were not in the Senate version of the bill which I previously supported," Brown said. "My fear is that these costs would be passed on to consumers in the form of higher bank, ATM and credit card fees, and put a strain on lending at the worst possible time for our economy. I've said repeatedly that I cannot support any bill that raises taxes."

Still, Democrats could weather the loss of Brown's support -- if they hold the other three Republicans and pick up one of two Democrats who have opposed the bill. Either Cantwell or Feingold could vote for cloture, which would move the bill for a final vote, and then vote against the measure itself.

Will All the Dems Fall in Line?

Some analysts suggest that both Cantwell and Feingold will ultimately succumb to Democratic entreaties to either vote for the bill or at least vote for cloture. It's hard to imagine how they could withstand such pressure with one of President Obama's signature initiatives hanging in the balance.

"In the wake of Byrd's death and the historic nature of Dodd-Frank (and the fact that it is now 'tougher'), we believe that sheer guilt and momentum will unify all 58 Democrats," Concept Capital analysts Teddy Downey and Chris Krueger wrote in a Monday research note cited by The Wall Street Journal.

As the clock ticks toward the July 4 recess, Senate Democrats will no doubt be working overtime to secure the 60 votes needed to defeat a Republican filibuster.