Bankruptcy reform may be back on the legislative agenda for this year.
Senate leaders are making a last-minute effort to pass a bill before adjournment in mid-November, but it is unclear whether they can iron out the complex partisan differences that have stalled the legislation for months.
Supporters in the banking industry had given up hope for a vote this year after Democrats in September defeated an effort by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to shield the bill from unrelated amendments. The minority party had threatened to block the legislation unless a minimum-wage hike and other provisions were added, so Sen. Lott, R-Miss., shelved it indefinitely.
But Sen. Lott and the minority leader, Sen. Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota, began working behind the scenes late last week to revive the bill, industry lobbyists said. Republicans were reportedly willing to let Democrats offer a minimum-wage amendment and two other, unrelated amendments as part of a deal to pass a separate trade bill. Republicans also want to propose three unrelated amendments of their own.
Banking and credit card companies strongly support bankruptcy reform, which they claim would rein in a legal system that has let record numbers of debtors off the hook -- even people who have the means to repay some of their overdue bills.
Reflecting the roller-coaster nature of Capitol Hill when lawmakers are itching to leave town, the odds on a resurrection of the bankruptcy bill have soared and plummeted repeatedly over the past few days.
On Tuesday, industry lobbyists were cautiously upbeat. "There are very active discussions going on," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. "There is a fair possibility it could be brought up before they go out," he said, predicting the bill had a fifty-fifty chance of being voted on.
By midday Wednesday, enthusiasm had given way to pessimism after industry officials met with the Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.
"It looked more probable yesterday than it looks today," said Philip S. Corwin, a partner with Federal Legislative Associates, who attended the meeting. "Nothing is worked out. There are a number of sticking points. It could change in two hours, but it looks unlikely it could come up this week. ... It's just a messy situation."
Among other problems, Sen. Hatch reportedly said, some Republicans are resisting an increase in the minimum wage. It was unclear whether including tax breaks for small businesses would be enough to win over fiscal conservatives without sparking opposition from Democrats.
William P. Binzel, a MasterCard International lobbyist, said the bill would pass on its merits, provided lawmakers have time to settle these extraneous issues. He predicted that Congress, as it typically does, would stay in session longer than planned. He added, "I remain very optimistic."
However, the Senate is busy with other matters. It planned to spend as many as seven hours debating the financial reform bill starting late Wednesday or early Thursday. (The House postponed debate on financial reform until Thursday so the Senate could vote first.) Also, Congress and President Clinton are still tangling over several spending bills.
Even if the Senate passes bankruptcy reform, lawmakers would have to wait until the 2000 session to reconcile the bill with the significantly different House version, which passed in May on a vote of 313 to 108.
The Senate bill was approved by the Judiciary Committee in April. It would let bankruptcy judges force debtors who could afford to pay $15,000 or 25% of unsecured credit over five years to file under Chapter 13 of the bankruptcy code. Creditors also could ask judges to force a consumer into a Chapter 13 reorganization, rather than eliminating their debts in Chapter 7. The industry favors the stricter House bill, but President Clinton has threatened a veto.