Senate and House staff members are working feverishly to iron out a compromise consumer bankruptcy reform bill before Congress adjourns at the end of the week.

Republican staff members on the House Judiciary Committee met for much of Tuesday behind closed doors to consider a compromise bill proposed by their Senate colleagues.

The negotiations are necessary because the House and Senate have passed widely divergent reform bills. The House version, sponsored by Rep. George W. Gekas, R-Pa., would use a formula based on income and living expense to determine if a consumer repaid some unsecured debts in Chapter 11 or eliminated them in Chapter 7. The Senate version, championed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, would let creditors ask a judge to force consumers to Chapter 11 from Chapter 7 if they could afford to repay at least 30% of unsecured debt within five years.

Details of the Senate's compromise were not available. However, a source said Senate negotiators were willing to accept a modified version of the House's formula-based approach. Also, the source said negotiators agreed to back away from a provision that would have made it more difficult for consumers to reaffirm debts, which means they agree to repay a creditor to keep an asset or credit card.

Industry officials were optimistic a bill could be enacted this year, though they fretted about the lack of time before Congress adjourns. "This is going to be a cliff-hanger," said Michael J. McGarry, director of public affairs at Visa U.S.A . "But they are going to be able to do this. Both Sen. Grassley and Rep. Gekas want a bill, and they are pushing for it."

"This legislation remains a high priority for Congress," agreed William P. Binzel, vice president for government relations at MasterCard International. "We have gotten that message from both the House and Senate leadership."

Yet a Democratic staff member questioned whether there was enough time to get a compromise through both chambers. "The clock is ticking," the staffer said.

In a Sept. 28 letter to congressional leaders, the Clinton administration said it could support the Senate bill provided bankrupt consumers are required to first pay child support, alimony, educational loans, and taxes before making credit card payments. It also demanded restrictions on the ability of lenders to ask a judge to move consumers to Chapter 11 from Chapter 7, saying creditors could abuse this power by filing a motion in every case.

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