WASHINGTON — Nearly three dozen Senate Democrats are pushing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to adopt "the strongest possible" payday lending rules, including a requirement that lenders assess consumers' ability to repay the loan.

The 32 lawmakers penned a letter to the agency on Thursday, as the agency considers a proposal to introduce strong restrictions on the industry.

The controversial rulemaking has already set off fierce debate about whether the potential measures will prove enough to curb industry abuses, while not closing off credit resources for low-income borrowers. Critics have argued that borrowers get trapped in debt once they take out a payday loan, often unable to ever pay off the loan fully due to high fees.

"The families do not understand the details of how this industry works when they take out that first loan, and they end up getting deeper and deeper into that hole — until it's a hole they just simply can't possibly get out of," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told reporters Thursday.

Merkley organized the letter with fellow Democrats, Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware and Dick Durbin of Illinois. The lawmakers argued that "swift action" is needed to stop the harms of predatory lending, while also urging the agency to ensure that existing state laws on payday lending are not supplanted by new federal rules.

Regulators unveiled a proposal outline in March laying out some of the provisions the agency is considering. The CFPB included a key measure in that initial draft that would require lenders to assess borrowers' ability to pay, similar to new mortgage rules the agency has released in recent years.

Senate Democrats pressed the CFPB to include that provision when a draft rule is formally introduced, arguing that the absence of such a standard can cause "substantial harm to consumers."

"In finalizing proposed rules, we urge you to focus on meaningful measures to ensure a consumer's ability to repay," the lawmakers wrote. "Ability-to-repay is a fundamental element of responsible lending; however, predatory lenders, particularly those with direct access to a consumer's checking account, have not prioritized this standard."

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