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Reform bill too weak, senators say

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In the end, the accounting reform bill approved by the Senate on Monday still wasn't tough enough for some lawmakers.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., were angry that votes were blocked on their efforts to strengthen the accounting rules for stock options.

"The fix is in," McCain groused.

Levin said the Senate's failure to address the issue left a "gaping hole" in the reform legislation. Both, however, voted for the final bill.

Stock options have become a popular form of executive compensation, especially among high-technology companies in Silicon Valley. The options give employees the right to buy company shares at a set price in the future.

But companies are not required to count options as an expense on their books, a practice that critics say provides investors with a less than full picture of a company's financial condition.

Last week, Democrats blocked McCain's effort to get a vote on requiring companies to expense options. On Monday, Republicans blocked a Levin attempt to get a vote on directing the Financial Accounting Standards Board, the rule-setting body for the accounting industry, to study the issue and adopt an "appropriate" rule within a year.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, contended that Levin's proposal would leave the board no choice but to order expensing of options. Levin, he said, wanted "to have a fair trial and then a hanging."

Gramm used a procedural maneuver to block a vote.

"Stock options are pretty important to the American economy," Gramm said. "We need to take into account that 6 million people who are not executives of companies get stock options every year, and we want to be sure we're not endangering their ability to own a piece of America."

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., an accountant whose views on accounting issues carry weight with fellow Republicans, expressed concern that expensing options would force companies to restate their earnings. "Restatements are part of what's making the market very upset right now," he said.

Even though Senate Democrats blocked the vote Thursday on McCain's amendment, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., pledged that the issue would be back before lawmakers.

"One way or another, we will have a vote," he said. "We might as well get it over with."

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