A House vote on mortgage bankruptcy reform was derailed Thursday after moderate Democrats won some last-minute leverage through Sen. Richard Durbin.
The Illinois Democrat, the measure's principal sponsor in the Senate, made some surprisingly conciliatory comments late Tuesday in an interview with American Banker, saying he was "willing to negotiate" and perhaps even restrict his bill's reach only to existing subprime mortgages.
The comments set off a firestorm before the vote in the House, where some Democrats favor limiting the reform's scope. Under the version the House Judiciary Committee adopted Jan. 27, borrowers would be able to reduce mortgage debt in bankruptcy.
The House did go ahead with general debate and a procedural vote on the rules for the bill's debate. It passed by a vote of 224 to 198, mostly along party lines, minus 26 Democrats who dissented.
The House is expected to bring the bill back to the floor next week, and it is expected to pass, but whether efforts to water the bill down will succeed remains unclear.
"To allow time for more discussion, I expect to complete consideration and vote on the bill likely Tuesday of next week," House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Thursday.
Sen. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, has been leading the reform charge there. His comments that he was willing to negotiate caught those on all sides of the debate off-guard.
Ever since he struck a deal last month with Citigroup Inc. that would limit the bill to existing mortgages and require a borrower to try to contact the lender for relief before appealing to a bankruptcy judge, he has been trying to pressure other lenders to join that deal, and he has been seen as unwilling to bend.
It is unclear how the additional time for negotiations and signs the Senate might accept a narrower bill will affect debate in the House. Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., who initiated bankruptcy reform in the previous Congress and has been a leading advocate in the House, said in an interview Thursday that if the bill only covered subprime mortgages, he would vote against it.
"We are passed the worst of the subprime crisis. … If we limit the legislation to subprime now, it would do very little good," he said. "A year and half ago I supported that concession, and a year and half ago that would have done some good. It would not do very much good at all right now."
Some of the moderate Democratic members who are part of the New Democrat Coalition and Blue Dog Coalition are seeking changes that would emphasize exhausting the qualified systematic loan modifications options that the Obama administration is working on and making bankruptcy serve as a last resort. Some of the moderates want "more coordination with the administration and the Senate to ensure that we have a cohesive approach," a House Democratic aide said. "People were obviously thrown by Durbin's quote."
Rep. Miller was one of many waiting for an update Thursday from Sen. Durbin.
"I think it's important that Senator Durbin make clear that he is not willing to agree to the sweeping concessions that the industry is seeking," Rep. Miller said.
Sen. Durbin denied his comments to other reporters. According to Fox News Sen. Durbin said he had been asked about limiting the bill to subprime, "And I said, 'Yes.' Well, that's where everyone starts, because that's where the controversy started, subprime mortgages. But that is not an issue at this point, because, quite frankly, there aren't that many mortgages left of a subprime nature.
"If we're going to do anything with bankruptcy, we have to extend it way beyond subprime," Sen. Durbin told Fox News.
But in the interview with American Banker after President Obama's speech Tuesday, questioning started with the standard required of borrowers. Under Sen. Durbin's deal with Citi, the borrower would only need to attempt to contact the borrower 10 days before trying for a bankruptcy cramdown. When asked where he was on that issue, Sen. Durbin showed no sign of bending.
"I think that it is reasonable to require the borrower to be in communication for a reasonable time before they file for bankruptcy," he said.
"If a borrower will not talk to a bank, they should not be able to avail themselves, but it's really difficult to write into law a measurement of good faith, so the best you can do is give them an opportunity to meet."
Asked next when the bill was likely to be considered in the Senate, he volunteered that he is willing to negotiate.
The Senate will vote "after the House, and we might change it, of course," he said. "There are variations we're looking at. But I'm willing to restrict this to homeowners to eliminate speculators, to subprime mortgages, only those currently in existence. I want to make this reasonable."
When asked whether he was serious about limiting the bill to subprime mortgages, he said: "We've talked about that as a possibility. I am willing to negotiate. I want this to be a reasonable approach."