Last-minute concessions by House Republican leaders sparked a surge of support late Wednesday for the bankruptcy reform bill, propelling it to a veto-proof 313-to-108 victory.
Rep. George W. Gekas, the bill's primary sponsor, endorsed a measure by moderate Democrats to require credit card companies to make additional disclosures about fees and penalties. He also accepted an amendment to exempt Social Security benefits when deciding whether a consumer has enough disposable income to afford to repay some unsecured debt.
The Pennsylvania Republican said after the vote that he plans to communicate shortly with his Senate counterparts and the White House to see whether a bipartisan compromise can be reached.
"I hope these changes make the bill more amenable to the administration," Rep. Gekas said. The White House had threatened to veto an earlier version, saying it would deprive poor consumers of the opportunity to use bankruptcy to get a fresh start.
"This gives it legs for both passage and a potential veto override," House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach said shortly after the vote. "If you pay no attention to the consumer, you won't have credible bankruptcy reform."
Industry leaders applauded the bill. "This is a very substantial and positive change from current law," said Philip S. Corwin, a principal at Federal Legislative Associates who lobbies for the American Bankers Association. "It is beneficial to banks involved in all types of lending."
Michael McGarry, director of public affairs at Visa U.S.A., said his company is "not opposed" to the new credit card provisions, which would require lenders to disclose, when an account is opened, several examples of how long it would take to retire a balance by making only the minimum monthly payment.
Consumer groups, however, blasted the bill. Gary Klein, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, said the bill, though hyped as containing pro-consumer measures, actually consists of more than 70 pro- creditor provisions while doing nothing to help debtors. "We have a wolf in sheep's clothing," he said.
The bill would require those earning above the regional median income to use Chapter 13 if they could afford, after living expenses, to repay at least $6,000 of unsecured debt over five years. Living expenses would be calculated using Internal Revenue Service guidelines, modified to include extra funds for food, clothing, and education.
The bill also would force developers of a single property to use an expedited bankruptcy system. Currently this only applies to projects valued at less than $4 million.
Also subject to expedited processing are small businesses, which are responsible for 85% of Chapter 11 filings. The system is intended to quickly resolve companies that have no chance of recovery.
The bill also protects derivative traders and users if a counterparty becomes insolvent, by keeping those assets outside the bankruptcy estate. It also eliminates hurdles that make it tough to resolve bankruptcies that cross national borders.