More than two years of debate over consumer bankruptcy will come to a head Wednesday when the Senate takes a crucial vote affecting a controversial reform bill.
If supporters can win the 60 votes needed for cloture to limit debate, then the legislation is expected to sail through the Senate this month. But if supporters fall short and the legislation is opened up to amendments, the Senate is likely to abandon the issue for the year.
Lobbyists are scurrying to round up votes for cloture. Most of their efforts are focused on Democrats; they are counting on the Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, to deliver all 55 Republicans.
"We have a reasonable shot," said William P. Binzel, vice president of government relations at MasterCard International. "We have at least two Democrats who have indicated publicly that they will support cloture and a handful of others who are very close."
The Senate bankruptcy reform bill would let creditors ask bankruptcy judges to force consumers to repay some unsecured debts in Chapter 13 rather than discharging them all in Chapter 7. Currently, only court- appointed trustees may make such requests.
The creditor would be required to prove the debtor is "abusing" the bankruptcy system. Abuse is defined as attempting to eliminate debt in Chapter 7 when the borrower could afford to repay at least 20% of unsecured debt over five years.
The House overwhelmingly passed a bankruptcy reform bill in June. That legislation centered on a formula based on income and living expenses to determine whether consumers file for Chapter 13 or Chapter 7.
Both bills were spurred by record consumer bankruptcy filings. More than 1.3 million people filed last year, and 1.35 million are expected to do so this year.
Sen. Lott of Mississippi was forced to ask for cloture Sept. 3 after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., objected to the Republican leader's effort to bring the bankruptcy bill to the floor. Senate rules require lawmakers to wait two working days before acting on a request to limit debate. That set up Wednesday's showdown.
Capitol Hill sources said negotiations are under way between the Lott and Kennedy staffs. Under the most likely compromise, Sen. Kennedy would let the Senate vote on bankruptcy reform if Sen. Lott schedules at least several hours of debate on a Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage to $6.15 by Jan. 1, 2000.
"There are efforts to try to the bridge the gap" between the parties, one Democratic source said. "Whether that will result in an agreement is unclear."
Democrats also want to debate two bankruptcy-related amendments. One, supported by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, would amend the Truth-in- Lending Act to require a disclosure of how long it would take a credit card customer, paying only the minimum balance each month, to pay down the entire card loan.
The other amendment would punish lenders that extend credit to consumers with debt exceeding 40% of income. Lenders offering additional unsecured credit to people with high debit-to-income ratios would forfeit their right to collect those loans if the consumer declared bankruptcy.
Though creditors want the reforms enacted, said MasterCard's Mr. Binzel, these amendments are "completely unworkable."
Gary Klein, a lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, argued that the minimum-wage hike and the two consumer-protection amendments would make the reform bill more fair.