WASHINGTON The Senate last week voted to axe one of the last procedural logs in the jam that has been stalling bankruptcy reform legislation.
But that does not mean the measure, ardently sought by the financial services industry, is on a fast track to final passage. In fact, its proponents believe that moving slowly may be the best way to ensure that the bill is enacted.
This bill has the most tortured history of any legislation you can think of, said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.
Supporters say that before a conference committee is convened between the House and Senate to reconcile the differences between the reform bills each chamber passed independently in March, their allies in the House will iron out as many differences as possible with skeptical Senate Democrats.
Senate Democrats are saying, Lets meet tomorrow, but House Republicans want a clear understanding on where things will end up before meeting, said an industry lobbyist who did not want to be named. If they move fast, the conference could deadlock.
The primary hot-button issues House leaders hope to resolve before a formal conference are whether to supersede state homestead laws, which let wealthy debtors thwart creditors by buying expensive homes that are exempt from foreclosure, and whether to prohibit people convicted of violent crimes, such as abortion clinic protestors, from filing for bankruptcy to avoid paying court-ordered fines.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who will be a negotiator, put the ball in the Houses court.
Were ready to go, he said Thursday. The House Republican leadership wants a bankruptcy bill. They are going to have pressure, but what theyre going to have to realize is, theyre going to have to accept some things they dont want, particularly the amendment I offered to prevent violent protestors from using bankruptcy courts to escape their debts.
Mr. Yingling said that the conference committee may take a while to get started, and we think it may take a while into the fall to get finished, as a result of the conflicts over these issues. Were not anticipating this bill being on the Presidents desk until the fall at the earliest.
The legislation would create a means test to determine whether people should be allowed to file for protection under Chapter 7 of the federal Bankruptcy Code, which discharges filers from credit card and other unsecured debts. The bill would make more debtors file under Chapter 13, which requires them to pay off most or all of their debts.
The Senate voted 82 to 16 Tuesday on a procedural move that clears the way for a conference, and the body stacked its 13-member, ideologically diverse negotiating team with critics of the bill. In addition to Sen. Schumer, they include Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Russell Feingold, D-Wis., Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Herb Kohl, D-Wis.
The bills supporters on the panel are Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.; Mike DeWine, R-Ohio; Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.; and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The naming of Sens. Durbin and Feingold, two of the bills staunchest opponents, caught industry lobbyists and House Republicans by surprise. Proponents are speculating that Senate leaders added the pair at the last minute to appease those who did not want Sen. Biden on the conference and to give the Democratic delegation more weight to rein in the Delaware Democrat.
The financial services industry is counting on Sen. Biden the sole Democratic conferee who is a loyal supporter of the bill to tilt the conference in favor of the measure.
Senate leaders may have decided to surround Biden with a few more people who, by virtue of their numbers, can weigh on him a little bit, Mr. Yingling said. In the grand scheme of things, though, Im not sure their presence will mean a whole lot, because the ratio of bill supporters and opponents remains the same, with supporters holding the majority.
House leaders, who support the industry-backed bill, are expected to name conferees as early as this week. Most will likely come from the Judiciary Committee which has primary jurisdiction over the bill.
Last month House Financial Services Committee Chairman Michael G. Oxley told reporters that he has received assurances that he would be on the conference, primarily to defend netting provisions that deal with how financial agreements are unwound in corporate bankruptcies.
Aside from the high-profile homestead and violence provisions, nuts-and-bolts differences between the House and Senate bills must be resolved.
For example, a Senate provision opposed by the industry would make it easier for farmers to qualify for more lenient Chapter 12 terms by lowering the percentage of a filers income that must come from farming operations, to 50% from 80%, and by doubling the maximum allowable debt, to $3 million.
Also, the Senate version of the bill would require debtors to pay for luxury goods worth more than $750 that they bought on a credit card within 90 days of filing for bankruptcy. The industry prefers the House version, which would require repayment of items worth more than $250.
Backers of the bill worry that instead of simply dealing with these rather minor differences, opponents could attempt to rewrite the massive measure.
Sen. Schumer said that is not likely to happen. Weve got plenty of problems on that bill without opening it up. Theres a view that we want to pass a bill, but we want to pass a fair bill. No one is going to dictate what happens. Both sides are going to have to meet part of the way.