By Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to erase a new rule that lets bank and credit-card customers band together in lawsuits, as the agency that drafted the measure, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, moves closer to the center stage of congressional politics.
The Republican-led House voted 231 to 190 along strict party lines to kill the rule barring financial institutions from forcing customers to agree to take future disputes to arbitration, instead of the courts, as a condition of opening accounts. It now goes to the Senate.
Under the Congressional Review Act, both chambers can vote to repeal a new rule with simple majorities.
The Republican majority in the Senate is slimmer. If the party loses just three lawmakers the CFPB rule, finalized 15 days ago, will survive. Also, the Senate calendar is currently full with healthcare and tax reform, and lawmakers may not get around to voting on the rule.
Republicans say "mandatory arbitration" works quickly to garner individuals substantial awards, while group lawsuits benefit only the attorneys who file them.
Democrats contend the contract clauses rob customers of constitutional rights. Because companies hire the arbitrators and proceedings are secret, they also say the process is rigged against consumers.
The Senate is being pressured on both sides by major interest groups, including the pro-business Chamber of Commerce and the workers' rights group the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. Much of the fight, though, is about the CFPB itself, which is appealing a legal decision that its structure is unconstitutional.
Now that Republicans control Congress and the White House the six-year-old agency's future is in doubt. President Donald Trump's administration has argued against the CFPB in court, the House has approved legislation radically overhauling it, and the acting comptroller of the currency has attacked the arbitration rule.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo helped author the resolution to kill the new rule. Meanwhile, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, held a news conference on Tuesday rallying supporters to protect it.
Warren originally came up with the idea of an agency to shield individuals from predatory lending and help prevent the type of devastation average people experienced during the 2007-09 financial crisis.
During Tuesday's fiery floor debate, Republicans lambasted the CFPB for having a single director who both writes and enforces rules and for dictating how businesses and customers interact. Democrats cited how the agency has returned billions of dollars to wronged consumers.
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)