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Senate committee advances bill easing banking regulations

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate committee advanced legislation Tuesday that would ease financial rules for banks for the first time since the 2007-2009 financial crisis.

The Banking Committee advanced the legislative package by a vote of 16 to 7, where it now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

The bill would ease regulatory requirements for banks with under $250 billion in assets, among other changes to rules imposed by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

The bill is supported by nearly every Republican in the Senate and at least 12 Democrats, making its passage extremely likely. The high likelihood the changes may become law has led to intense lobbying by industry groups eager to see legal changes included in the measure that they view as beneficial.

Over 100 amendments were proposed to the bill, primarily by Democrats looking to trim favorable provisions for banks and boosting consumer protections.

But the four moderate Democrats on the committee joined with the panel’s 12 Republicans to oppose any changes to the compromise package, which was first announced in November.

While the bill seems likely to pass the Senate, its path forward remains unclear. Lawmakers are facing a busy December schedule, including efforts to finalize a tax cut package and the need to pass a funding bill to avert a government shutdown.

“Financial regulation should promote safety and soundness while enabling a vibrant and growing economy,” said committee Chairman Mike Crapo. “The bill we are marking up today is the product of a thorough, robust process, and honest, bipartisan negotiations.”

Proponents argue the bill would help spur the economy by encouraging lending. But critics argue it increases the risk of future crises while aiding banks that already enjoy record profits.

“This bill is about helping the banks, including the largest of the largest,” said Senator Sherrod Brown.

The legislation makes a number of changes to heightened financial rules enacted as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, with the relief aimed primarily at smaller banks and credit unions.

However, there are a handful of provisions beneficial to larger banks, most notably exempting some larger banks from heightened regulatory scrutiny as “systemically important” financial institutions.

The bill raises the threshold by which banks face those stricter rules from $50 billion in assets to $250 billion.

Banks with assets between $50 billion and $100 billion would be exempt once the bill is enacted, while those with assets between $100 billion and $250 billion would be exempted 18 months later.

The Federal Reserve would have flexibility to release banks from stricter rules sooner, or reinstate them for scrutiny under certain conditions as part of the legislation.

The bill also exempts banks with less than $10 billion in assets from several regulatory requirements, including the “Volcker Rule” ban on proprietary trading.

Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Jonathan Oatis