(Dow Jones) Opponents of applying a fiduciary standard to advisors and certain retail brokers lobbied harder than ever to shelve the idea and get it far out of reach.

But legislators in the final stretch of efforts to reconcile U.S. House and Senate versions of broad financial reform finally reached a compromise on Thursday. The battle seems to have ended not far from where it started, with a provision that would require the Securities and Exchange Commission to study the issue.

Some fiduciary advocates, however, are encouraged by a six-month time frame during which the agency would have to complete and report on the study. Earlier versions of the plan would have allowed a study to drag on for two years. Many political observers said the delays would have effectively stifled the idea.

If approved, the study would be conducted at a time when the SEC is already addressing major reforms. "It's a huge undertaking. The SEC is going to have a lot on its plate," says David Tittsworth, executive director of the Investment Adviser Association, a trade group in Washington, D.C.

The SEC may conduct a rule-making following the study to address standards of care for retail customers, although the language wouldn't require it to do so. Findings and conclusions of the study must be considered during the rule-making process, if the legislation is adopted.

Thursday's compromise followed a showdown that demonstrated just how fiercely some have battled the standard.

Proposed language that circulated on Wednesday would have, among other things, maintained the study requirement, but made it even more difficult for the SEC to act on its findings. Lawmakers would have allowed the SEC to lay down new rules only if the agency finds that regulatory gaps between certain brokers and investment advisors can't be addressed through other approaches, such as disclosures or other standards.

That presented "a standard the SEC [couldn't] win," says Barbara Roper, investor-protection director for the Consumer Federation of America, an advocacy group. Such a clause would have left its efforts vulnerable to a wave of lawsuits from opponents.

The fiduciary standard, a duty to always put a client's best interests first, now applies by law only to registered investment advisors--not to the broad ranks of brokers and other financial professionals who also often call themselves advisors. The latter group must only meet a less-restrictive standard requiring them to, in transactions, sell to clients only what is suitable.

Supporters of extending the fiduciary standard to all advisors and brokers who give investment advice appeared more harried as the endgame neared.

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