Financial Overhaul Bill's Passage Threatened

Legislation aimed at better policing the financial regulatory system hits the house floor for final debate Wednesday. The financial system overhaul bill is a key part of the president's plan to fix the economy. However, black lawmakers in Congress say the administration isn't doing enough to help struggling minority communities, and they're willing to hold the measure hostage to make their point.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to look now at another overhaul package before Congress. It's the plan to change how things are done in America's financial system. Some black members of Congress don't think the Obama administration has been doing enough to help struggling minority communities, and they're willing to hold up the financial package to make their point.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: This dispute highlights the ideological fault lines between the Black Caucus and the Obama White House, says Frederick Harris, head of the Center for African-American Politics at Columbia University.

Professor FREDERICK HARRIS (Columbia University): The president said throughout the campaign that he supports universal public policies, public policies that would support everyone. And the Black Caucus, on the other hand, their policies have been targeted - policies towards the poor, towards minorities. So what we have here is a strategic or ideological clash.

CORNISH: And with support for the president still highest among blacks, no caucus member wants to be seen as putting up roadblocks to the president's agenda, says Missouri Democrat and vice chair of the group, Emanuel Cleaver.

Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER (Democrat, Missouri): It's a conundrum that has to be solved, and we are very, very, very delicately moving into this arena.

CORNISH: Until now, Cleaver and several other members of the caucus recently boycotted a key committee vote on the financial regulatory overhaul package. Then they upped the ante by threatening to get the 40-member caucus to vote against the bill altogether. They have leveraged the attention to try to get more help for the minority communities targeted by predatory sub prime lenders, better inclusion of small and minority owned banks in the federal bailout program, and they want more to be done about the black unemployment rate, which soars past the national average at more than 15 percent.

Mr. HILARY SHELTON (Director, NAACP): The last thing I think any of us want to get into is a conversation or discussion about somehow I know that somebody's pain hurts more than someone else's.

CORNISH: Hilary Shelton of the NAACP says that with attention back on the economic stimulus, now was the time for the CBC to intervene.

Mr. SHELTON: We've been great at addressing issues of Wall Street. The big push, of course, now that you hear everybody talking about is Main Street. But keep in mind, symbolically as we talk about economic fixes in our country, most African-Americans and racial and ethnic minorities don't live on Main Street either. They live on Back Street.

CORNISH: When confronted with these claims, President Obama told USA Today it would be a mistake to target any one ethnic group in addressing nationwide concerns. The president's jobs speech yesterday appeared to do little to put the White House and the Black Caucus on the same page. Congressman Cleaver�

Rep. CLEAVER: We are essentially on the same page as long as there is a blank page where the CBC can fill in its priorities.

CORNISH: These days there are few blank pages on the Obama agenda. But the caucus has had some success. Already two provisions penned by Black Caucus members are being introduced to the Financial Overhaul Bill. Programs providing low interest loans to unemployed home owners facing foreclosure and state aid to buy up abandoned properties in blighted communities. Adding those two measures to the bill will likely guarantee Black Caucus support.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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