Earlier this year, 17 Senate Democrats joined every Senate Republican in voting to weaken bank regulations put in place after the 2008 financial crisis.
The most strident opponent of these changes was Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. A former bank bailout oversight chief and longtime expert on financial issues, Warren explicitly excoriated her Democratic colleagues for supporting the changes in a last-bid effort to stop them. It is rare for a member of Congress to openly castigate members of their party over a high-profile vote.
“So on the bankers’ front, we have the Dodd-Frank law. Ten years on from the financial crash, parts of it are repealed in a vote in the Senate: Seventeen Democrats voted for that; 33 Democrats in the House voted to repeal parts of that legislation. Why?” Hasan asked.
Warren responded by putting the blame on Republicans. She noted that community banks had asked for some changes in the Dodd-Frank financial law and that some Republican and Democrats were willing to make changes in that area. “But, no, said the Republicans, and their big-bank donors. They said: The only way this bill goes forward is if there are giveaways for the giant financial institutions,” she said, summarizing what happened next.
“But you expect that from the Republicans. My question is: the Democrats who did that, was that a betrayal?” Hasan asked.
Warren continued to rail against the substance of the changes, noting that some of the “largest financial institutions in this country” will be under less scrutiny.
Hasan continued to press Warren to offer some critical inspection of why the Democratic Party failed to unite to stop the changes. “So tell me why 17 Democrats in the Senate and 33 Democrats in the House voted to repeal this. Was it money? Was it the influence of money?”
Warren again deflected. “They helped make this a riskier system, and I think that is a bad decision. All day long, they said they were there for the community banks, but using the community banks as human shields to be able to get giveaways for giant banks was wrong,” she said of the legislation.
Finally, Hasan pointed to an earlier interview with Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in which he said that most Democrats don’t “have the guts to take on the billionaire class,” in the senator’s words. “Do you agree with him?” Hasan wanted to know.
After a pause, Warren replied, “Yeah.”
“You don’t think enough of your Senate Democrats are willing to take on the billionaire class?” Hasan probed.
“Look, there are not enough of my Senate Democrats, there are not enough of the Republicans,” Warren replied, liberated from political niceties that discourage criticism of your own political party. “But you are right. There are not enough. Because until we have all of the Democrats who are willing to take on the billionaire class, until we have all of the Democrats who are willing to fight for the American people and not for a handful of billionaires and giant corporations, then it’s going to stay an uphill fight.”
Warren also discussed her intention to unveil legislation that would tackle the revolving-door corruption in Congress. She noted that 125 former members of Congress and high-level staffers were involved in lobbying against financial reform legislation, and that her bill would, among other things, issue a lifetime ban on lobbying by former members.
Sanders, ironically, had mostly declined to attack his own colleagues as they went about deregulating Wall Street in recent months. Warren’s criticism of her colleagues, meanwhile, drew fire from within her own party. She made a loud, public case against the recent effort to roll back Dodd-Frank and publicly named her colleagues who were on the wrong end of the fight. That public battle drew a private meeting with Sen. Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Senate Democrats, to discuss her approach.
It also sparked a rare, heated confrontation at a weekly private meeting of Senate Democratic chiefs of staff, with the top staffers to Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., unloading on Warren’s top staffer, according to people in the room. They argued that Warren was entitled to her opinion, but for her to come after vulnerable colleagues in an election year, and paint them as sellouts to Wall Street, could harm Democrats in the midterms. Warren’s chief of staff took the dressing down in stride and then surprised the gathered chiefs by pushing back hard, rather than apologizing and moving on, people in the room told The Intercept. He argued that Warren ran on her work holding Wall Street accountable, and that nobody should have been surprised that she would loudly defend Dodd-Frank.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, one of the Democrats who Warren called out, is up for re-election in deep red North Dakota in 2018. A lead author of the bill in question, she didn’t appreciate the pushback. “I think Elizabeth obviously feels very strongly that the bill that we crafted went too far,” Heitkamp told HuffPost. “I don’t share her read on that. I’ve been pretty clear based on my statements on the floor that what we did was not accurately or fairly represented in those statements.”