WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders are trying to force a vote this week on a bill that would let bankruptcy judges modify mortgages — even though they do not appear to have enough support to pass it.
The plan has political analysts scratching their heads. The measure's chief sponsor, Sen. Richard Durbin, has steadfastly fought all year for the bill and has been negotiating on it for weeks with the largest banking companies, including Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.
But by Monday there was no deal struck, and it did not even appear that all Democrats would support the bill, much less any Republicans. Senate leaders have also not decided what version of the measure to bring to the floor for a vote or how to package it.
"I don't know why they are doing this," said Andy Laperriere, the managing director of International Strategy and Investment Group Inc.'s policy research team. "I would have thought they would have worked toward a compromise. I'm confused by it."
Some observers said the Democrats are pushing the vote forward to give supporters an election issue in which they can later blame Republicans for not doing enough to stem the housing crisis.
"They want to get the Republicans on record as being opposed," said Jaret Seiberg, a policy analyst with SMH Capital Inc.'s Washington Research Group.
For moderate Democrats, "it's a free vote," he said. "They can vote for it but not really worry about the ramifications, because they know it's not going to pass."
A Durbin aide would not discuss his strategy and said the details were still being worked out. "We're still negotiating."
Durbin has been in discussions with various lawmakers and industry and consumer groups since the last Congress, and the Illinois Democrat's bill has been redrafted several times.
In recent weeks a compromise with the major banking firms appeared within reach. That deal centers on making loans modified or refinanced under the Hope for Homeowners program or the Obama administration's foreclosure prevention plan ineligible for judicial cramdowns, along with other changes.
Sen. Evan Bayh had advocated a more moderate approach that limited the bill to nontraditional loans.
"Senator Bayh believes it is important to alleviate the housing crisis, reduce the tide of foreclosures and provide relief to struggling homeowners," said a spokesman for the Indiana Democrat. "This should be accomplished, however, in a way that doesn't increase costs for the 95% of homeowners who will not go through bankruptcy. He hopes that Senator Durbin is successful in striking the appropriate balance."
Some observers argued Monday it still has a chance of passage.
"We are very hopeful that the discussion that the staffers and industry groups to promote this bill will succeed," said David Berenbaum, executive vice president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. "That is critical because too many consumers are in fact not helped by some of the new initiatives. … We need something that reaches everyone."
While Seiberg said this vote is likely to fail, he said it is likely the issue will return again.
"At this point it seems that this is going to go down in defeat, but it doesn't mean that mortgage bankruptcy is done as an issue," he said. "This could easily resurface in the fall if the Obama loan modification plan is not helping as many consumers as predicted. Let's face it — none of the other modification plans have lived up to expectations, so we think there is a high degree of risk that we're back battling on the cramdown issue in the fall."
It remains unclear if the bill will be paired with another measure to increase the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s borrowing authority.
The mortgage bankruptcy bill passed by the House last month included the FDIC measure. FDIC Chairman Chairman Sheila Bair has said she would slash emergency deposit insurance premium increases in exchange for the increased authority.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., has sponsored the FDIC measure as a separate bill, which would more than triple the agency's borrowing authority, to $100 billion, and temporarily raise it to $500 billion.
It remains unclear whether Durbin and Dodd would combine the bankruptcy and FDIC measures into one bill.
Though Democratic aides said leaders were still deciding how to proceed Monday, many observers said they were confident the borrowing authority would not be bound by support for cramdowns.
"The underlying bill really is the FDIC bill. It's a good bill, because it's a must-pass bill," said Laperriere. "If there is no compromise on cramdown, then the FDIC bill moves forward."