WASHINGTON - George W. Gekas is feeling out of the loop.
Sponsor of a bankruptcy reform bill that passed the House on a 313-108 vote in May, the Pennsylvania Republican now sits, frustrated, in his Capitol Hill office. He hears rumors of deals cut between Senate leaders and Clinton Administration officials, and wonders if the bill that has "consumed" him will be signed into law, compromised beyond recognition, or sunk by a presidential veto.
"Every day I hear a different version of the status of the bill," he said in an interview Thursday. "The latest is that it is alive and well because of a set of consultations held between [White House Economic Advisor Gene] Sperling and [Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott." Rep. Gekas said he has not spoken with Mr. Sperling or Sen. Lott, but heard what has "wafted through the circles of the Senate bankruptcy conferees."
President Clinton has twice threatened to veto bankruptcy reform legislation if it too closely resembles Rep. Gekas' version. The President has said he prefers the Senate bill, adopted 83-14 in February, but will only sign it with several concessions.
This makes the Senate bill's crafters the subject of intense White House pressure, and leaves Rep. Gekas conspicuously absent from the debate. After three years of near-constant work on bankruptcy reform, he has had little input for the past month. "I am just a bridesmaid, waiting for the Senate bride to come forth," he grumbled.
The engagement has been anything but conventional.
Rather than convening a formal conference committee, an informal group of lawmakers have been trying to reconcile the House and Senate versions since early May. Rep. Gekas said the tactic is an effort to avoid a bill saddled with extraneous amendments, or stalled by opponents in the Senate.
The administration opposes an amendment by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that would exempt organizations trying to collect on bad checks from the Fair Debt Collection Act. President Clinton is equally insistent that an amendment be included by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to bar individuals who attack abortion clinics from filing for bankruptcy to avoid civil penalties.
Characterizing both as "inane and nongermane," Rep. Gekas is plainly annoyed that the amendments are holding up such important reforms. "I can't honestly tell you why the President is upset about the bad checks provision, nor am I satisfied that I know fully why Orrin Hatch insists on it. I don't see why we can't just forget it. I think it should be scrapped if it's going to stand in the way."
And while he finds the fuss over the Hatch amendment simply puzzling, the inclusion of the Schumer amendment in a final bill would be downright galling. "The Schumer thing ought to be dumped, because we should not use the bankruptcy reform bill as a debating ground for abortion," he said. "The kind of situation that Schumer seems to want to protect against has never arisen, to my knowledge, nor is it likely to. And the possible occurrence of these things is not enough to hold up a bill."
Calling on the first-term New York senator to relent, Rep. Gekas said, "Schumer should be gallant and statesmanlike enough to say that he has made his statement, and will withdraw it in the interest of bankruptcy reform.
"I'll send that in a letter to him and see if he ever answers. I doubt it," he added.
(Both bills would force more people to use Chapter 13 of the bankruptcy code, which requires repayment rather than wiping the slate clean as Chapter 7 does. The stricter House bill would require people who are able to repay $6,000 over five years to use Chapter 13; the Senate bill only requires repayment from people able to repay $15,000.)
Rep. Gekas insisted that bankruptcy reform legislation can still be enacted this year. But he said he is wary of the influence President Clinton's veto threat may have on the final bill. "He is very adept at vying with the Republican Congress on a political basis, and therefore the veto threat looms large in the deliberations.
"We're not at a point of saying we'll do this and this if you promise you will sign," he said. "What I am saying is that the stage is set for that."
The alternative is to ram the bill through Congress and try to override the veto, but Rep. Gekas said that strategy is risky.
"There will be a number of Democrats who supported our bill, but who will waffle on that and vote to sustain the President," he said.