WASHINGTON- Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday rallied consumer, labor, and religious advocates against pending bankruptcy-reform legislation.
Sens. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York heaped much of their scorn for the legislation at the feet of banks and credit card companies, whom they blamed for using millions of dollars in campaign contributions to coax Congress into adopting bills that would hurt consumers.
"I can only use the word 'injustice' to describe this bill," Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., said at a news conference. "It punishes the vulnerable and does virtually nothing to hold lenders accountable for their own poor practices."
The lawmakers argued the legislation - which has been passed by the House and Senate and is in compromise talks - would prevent poor and middle-class families that slip into financial trouble because of expensive medical bills, job loss, or other events, from eliminating their unsecured debts under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code. They also complained that the legislation would fail to adequately shield child-support payments and retirement savings from creditors, and would encourage risky and predatory lending.
Representatives of the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women, and other groups also blasted the bill.
Industry officials called the claims exaggerated.
"We have addressed all these issues time and again," said Jeffrey A. Tassey, chief lobbyist for the American Financial Services Association.. He emphasized that between 80% and 90% of filers would still be able to eliminate their debts under Chapter 7, but most of the remainder would have to enter a repayment plan under Chapter 13. Abusers of the system "could pay real money and make a lot of difference," he said.
The legislation has been snagged by a procedural glitch since the Senate adopted its version on Feb. 2. The Senate bill included a minimum wage increase and tax cuts for small business, but tax measures may only originate in the House. Sen. Wellstone blocked efforts to sever the minimum wage and tax cut provisions, so House and Senate leaders have directed a group of lawmakers to informally negotiate a compromise that can be attached to another bill. The Senate proposed a deal last month, and a House counteroffer is expected by the end of the week.
Separately, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, the sponsor of the bankruptcy bill, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., have agreed to scale back a controversial provision that would have given creditors access to individual retirement accounts and some pension holdings of debtors.
Under their new proposal, a set amount of retirement savings would be protected from creditors, depending on the age of the debtor. The thresholds would range from $250,000 for debtors age 21 or younger and $1 million for debtors age 65 and older.