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Homeowner Relief Losing Momentum

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THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - April 10, 2008
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Chances of Homeowner Relief Losing Momentum in Senate
By David M. Herszenhorn
The New York Times

Washington - A bipartisan effort in the Senate on tax 
breaks to stabilize the housing market and other aid for 
homeowners at risk of foreclosure began to crumble on 
Tuesday, as the White House threatened a veto, saying 
the bill would only make things worse. 

House Democrats, meanwhile, said they would pursue their 
own, more expansive homeowner assistance bill, and would 
support only a few provisions in the Senate measure. 

But even as the White House reiterated its opposition to 
government help for irresponsible lenders and speculators, 
there were signals that it was prepared to endorse broader 
aid for struggling homeowners - provided that it did not 
involve new legislation sought by Democrats. 

In a draft of testimony to be delivered before the House 
Financial Services Committee on Wednesday, Brian D. 
Montgomery, the commissioner of the Federal Housing 
Administration, said the administration would look to 
expand a program to help refinance the mortgages of 
borrowers struggling with subprime adjustable-rate 
mortgages. But the draft urges Congress not to overreach. 

A spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban 
Development, Stephen C. O'Halloran, cautioned that the 
draft text could change. But the testimony seemed likely 
to set the stage for continued wrangling over the 
competing homeowner-aid proposals in the weeks ahead. 

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The relatively modest Senate bill contains tax breaks for 
struggling businesses, including home builders; a $7,000 
tax credit for buyers of foreclosed properties; $10 billion 
in tax-exempt bonds for local housing agencies to refinance 
troubled loans; $4 billion for local governments to buy 
foreclosed properties; and $100 million to counsel 
borrowers. 

In an effort to speed the bill's passage, Senate Democrats 
had agreed to delay a broader effort to assist troubled 
homeowners by authorizing up to $300 billion in federally 
insured mortgages, enough to help as many as 1.5 million 
borrowers refinance expensive adjustable rate loans into 
more stable and affordable 30-year loans. 

The dimming prospects of the relief package seemed 
incongruous with the 92-to-6 vote on Tuesday afternoon, 
by which the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans, 
including all three leading presidential candidates, 
voted to curtail debate and move toward its final passage 
on Wednesday. 

At the White House, however, the press secretary, Dana M. 
Perino, called the legislation ill-conceived. "The bill 
will likely do more harm than good," she said, "by bailing 
out lenders and speculators and passing on costs to other 
Americans who play by the rules and honor their mortgage 
debt obligations.". 

Ms. Perino also suggested that the Senate bill could be 
irrelevant, citing a desire of many House Democrats to go 
further. "Fortunately, it doesn't appear that likely that 
this bill will come to the president's desk," she said, 
"as the House has indicated that it plans to go its own 
way." 

The comments from the White House seemed to blindside 
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican 
minority leader, who earlier in the day repeated his 
strong support for the housing bill. 

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At a news conference, Mr. McConnell said he was not 
prepared to respond to the criticism from the Bush 
administration. "It was unclear that the White House 
had a stated position yet on this bill," he said. 

House Democrats did not dispute Ms. Perino's assertion 
that they planned to pursue a more aggressive rescue 
plan for homeowners. 

Those efforts are expected to accelerate throughout the 
week as hearings begin on a Democratic plan to expand 
the availability of loans insured by the federal government 
and to help troubled borrowers refinance. 

Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is the 
main author of that plan, said House Democrats were 
prepared to endorse some aspects of the Senate bill, 
including the money for local governments to buy foreclosed 
properties, bonds for refinancing and a proposal to 
"modernize" the F.H.A. 

House Democrats also have their own version of a provision 
in the Senate bill that will create a property-tax 
deduction up to $500 for individuals and $1,000 for couples 
who do not itemize deductions on their tax returns. 

Mr. Frank, who has forged a solid working relationship 
with Henry M. Paulson Jr., the Treasury secretary, said 
in an interview that he remained hopeful of winning 
administration support for his more expansive plan to 
help borrowers with more insured loans. 

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Also in the House on Tuesday, Representative Charles B. 
Rangel, Democrat of New York and chairman of the Ways 
and Means Committee, introduced tax legislation aimed 
at helping homeowners and first-time home buyers. 

Mr. Rangel's bill would give individuals and families a 
refundable credit, akin to an interest-free loan, of as 
much as $7,500, or 10 percent of the purchase price of 
the home. The money would have to be repaid over 15 years 
in equal installments. 

House Republicans issued a set of House Principles on 
Tuesday that they said should frame the debate over any 
legislation. Among them: "The best way out of the housing 
crisis is to get Americans purchasing homes again. The 
housing market needs a jump-start, not a bailout." 

The Republicans also said they opposed "a taxpayer bailout 
that rewards reckless behavior." 

Mr. Frank said that Democrats shared many of those goals, 
and noted that his proposal would not use tax revenue to 
pay off troubled mortgages. 

But whatever common ground House Republicans and Democrats 
might share, the parties seemed likely to clash over the 
housing issue for weeks to come. A recent Gallup poll 
showed sharply different views on the issue among voters. 
A majority of Democrats favored government help for 
troubled homeowners; a majority of Republicans opposed it. 

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