WASHINGTON -- House and Senate Republicans appeared to reach a compromise on bankruptcy reform legislation late last week, but the controversial bill still faces an array of political obstacles.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., hosted a meeting in his office on Thursday with House Republican leaders and key lawmakers handling the legislation. That meeting was said by insiders to have produced an agreement settling remaining disputes, but details were sketchy.
Industry officials described as encouraging signs the intercession of the GOP brass and Democratic leaders' recent comments that they want to advance the legislation.
"That's very positive," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. "Once you have the bipartisan leadership agreeing you need to do it, it usually gets done."
Yet lobbyists are also concerned that the bill may be drifting toward the Senate version -- which included requirements for warnings on credit card bills about the long-term cost of making only minimum monthly payments, and which makes it easier than in the House bill for debtors to eliminate their debts under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code instead of having to repay some of their unsecured debts under Chapter 13.
"A lot of the movement has been in the direction of the Senate bill," said Jeffrey A. Tassey, chief lobbyist for the American Financial Services Association. "The Senate bill was O.K. in some regards; in others it wasn't."
Republican leaders had hoped to strike a deal on bankruptcy reform and, for procedural reasons, attach it to other fast-moving legislation such as the digital signatures bill so that it could be passed before lawmakers adjourn Friday for the one-week Memorial Day recess. But Senate Democratic leaders have told lobbyists they are moving on a slower timetable and that the legislation could linger until July 4.
Besides worrying about bankruptcy reform foes such as Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., supporters are casting a wary eye to broader partisan bickering in the Senate. Democrats and Republicans are engaged in nasty procedural battles over foreign operations and other spending bills, slowing business in the chamber and producing finger pointing all around.
"The political situation in the Senate is pretty partisan right now," said Mr. Tassey. "The juices are flowing up there."
How the White House will react is unclear. Jacob J. Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, sent a letter to top lawmakers May 12 saying President Clinton would veto the legislation if it resembles the House bill too closely.
Industry lobbyists were having difficulty Friday finding out exactly what the Republicans had agreed to, and reserved judgment until congressional staff members provided them the compromises in writing.
A controversial proposal by Sen. Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, that would exempt debt collectors from the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act -- which limits late-night calls and provides other consumer protections -- when they are trying to collect on bounced checks, has reportedly been scaled back. But another controversial provision that would leave some retirement savings open to creditors remains, sources said.
It is unclear which dollar threshold the Republican compromise would set for determining whether a debtor should be forced into Chapter 13. The Senate bill, adopted in February, would do so for debtors who could repay $15,000 or 25% of unsecured debt over five years. The House bill, passed last May, set the bar at $6,000 or 25% of unsecured debt over five years.