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Mortgage bankruptcy bill fails in the Senate

The Senate has defeated legislation that would have let hundreds of thousands of debt-ridden homeowners seek mortgage relief in bankruptcy court.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Democratic-controlled Senate on Thursday defeated a plan to spare hundreds of thousands of homeowners from foreclosure through bankruptcy, a bill President Barack Obama embraced but did little to see it through.

A dozen Democrats joined Republicans in the 45-51 vote to scuttle the bill, which Obama had said was important to saving the economy and promised to push through Congress. But facing stiff opposition from banks, Obama did little to pressure lawmakers who worried it would encourage bankruptcy filings and spike interest rates.

“The vote today was a bipartisan rejection of an interest-rate hike, which is exactly the wrong solution for jobs, homeowners and the economy,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Democratic leaders lamented that they were powerless, with the 45 votes falling far short of the 60 to overcome procedural hurdles. The newest Democrat, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, voted against it.

“The banks that are too big to fail are saying that 8 million Americans facing foreclosure are too little to count in this economy,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, who championed the bill and had spent weeks negotiating with financial lobbyists in a bid to strike a deal.

Obama long has backed the proposal to give debt-ridden individuals the option of asking a bankruptcy judge to reduce their mortgage payment. He cited that support last fall as he privately lobbied skeptical Democrats to back the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. And once he was president, he had promised, he would push for its passage.

In February, the newly inaugurated president included the proposal as the stick in a housing plan full of carrots for the banking industry. The broader rescue plan encouraged, but did not require, lenders to cut homeowners’ monthly payments and refinance loans for individuals whose home’s market value has sunk below what they owe.

The following month, the House passed the bankruptcy legislation along party lines in a 234-191 vote.

But the bankruptcy option got only a tepid endorsement from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. As debate on the measure brewed, Geithner was pushing for the creation of a government-sponsored program that would rely on private investors to buy the risky mortgage-backed securities weighing down the market.

The forced easing, or “cram-down,” of a mortgage by a bankruptcy judge would have likely introduced additional uncertainty for investors.

Congressional Democrats also questioned the merits.

“Do I want to have my rate go up so that somebody else might be able to cram down” their mortgage payment? asked Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who voted against the bill.

In recent days, as it became clear the bill would fail, the administration did little to counter the aggressive lobbying by banks fighting the bill and focused its efforts instead on a more popular bill targeting credit card companies.

Spokeswomen at the Treasury Department and White House did not respond to requests for comment, and absent from the debate was any statement of administration policy.

Obama supporters blamed the banks.

“There was a lot of fear-mongering,” said Andrew Jakabovics, associate director for housing and economics at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The banks put on a good show, saying, ’Hey, if you force us to take more losses, we’re going to go out of business.”’

Indeed, the banking industry had a direct line to Capitol Hill. Officials from some of the biggest banks, including JP Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co., as well as groups representing credit unions and community banks, negotiated for weeks with Durbin and other leading Senate Democrats.

Trying to win support, Durbin narrowed the provision substantially. The latest proposal would have restricted eligibility to homeowners already in foreclosure whose lender had not offered them better terms. Homes would also have to be worth less than $729,000 and apply to mortgage loans originated before 2009.

Durbin had offered the measure as an amendment to a housing bill aimed at easing the nation’s credit crunch. That bill would guarantee bank deposits up to $250,000 through 2013.

The bill also would permanently increase the borrowing authority for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from $30 billion to $100 billion. Increasing the FDIC’s credit would allow the agency to reduce large new premiums it has begun charging banks to insure deposits.

The Senate is expected to vote on that measure next week. Durbin said he would try to restore the bankruptcy provision in conference with the House, although it was considered unlikely he would succeed.

“I’ll be back,” he said. “I’m not going to give up.”