WASHINGTON — The Obama administration used a speech by the president and an appearance on Capitol Hill by his housing secretary Tuesday to launch a push for legislation that would allow more Americans to refinance into lower interest rate mortgages.
The new legislative effort met immediate resistance from Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee, who complained that Democrats may ruin a chance at forging bipartisan legislation by bypassing a committee vote on the matter.
President Obama, using a speech in Albany, N.Y., to unveil what he called a job-creation to-do list for Congress, pressured Republicans to support the refinancing plan as one of the five ideas on the list.
"This would make a huge difference for the economy. Families could save thousands of dollars, and that means they've got more money in their pocket," Obama said. "We estimate they'd save at least $3,000 a year. So that's on our to-do list. It's not complicated."
In Washington, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told the Senate Banking Committee that now is the time to pass three refinancing bills, which would benefit different groups of homeowners.
"There is a real urgency here because interest rates today are at the lowest level they've ever been for a 30-year mortgage," Donovan said. "But as the economy continues to improve, I think all expectations are that this window of record-low interest rates may not last a significant period of time. And therefore, it is particularly urgent that we take advantage of this."
But none of the three proposals have even been introduced as bills yet.
On the first proposal, the Obama administration has been working with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on a measure that would allow homeowners whose mortgages are not owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac to refinance into a government-backed loan.
Obama originally rolled out this idea during the State of the Union address, and he proposed paying for it with a fee on the largest financial institutions, but that idea garnered little support in Congress. Donovan has said more recently that the administration is open to other ideas for covering the estimated cost of up to $5 billion, but he made clear Tuesday that the issue has not yet been resolved.
Donovan's testimony did include some new details about the proposal. He stated that the Federal Housing Administration, which would operate the program, would establish a second insurance fund, separate from its existing mortgage insurance fund, to better track and manage the risk that results from the new program.
The HUD secretary also announced that mortgages that are worth 40% more than the value of the home will not be eligible for the program.
"Lenders interested in refinancing deeply underwater loans would therefore need to write down the balance of these loans before they would qualify," he said in written testimony.
The second proposal, which is being developed by Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Barbara Boxer, may be easier to sell on Capitol Hill because it does not require the federal government to take on any additional exposure to the mortgage market.
The proposal, which according to Menendez will be introduced as a bill in the next few days, would remove certain existing barriers to refinancing for homeowners whose loans are already backed by Fannie or Freddie. For example, it would allow new servicers to use the same streamlined underwriting process that servicers of existing mortgages are already using under an existing administration refinancing program.
"What we're seeing in a lot of cases is that because there's essentially a monopoly on refinancing, whoever holds their current loan, whoever is the servicer, they can charge them, and we're seeing this, very high fees," Donovan said.
A third refinancing bill, which had not previously been announced, would provide a financial incentive for borrowers to rebuild equity in their homes by taking out a shorter-term loan when they refinance. That measure is expected to be introduced by Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley.
Homeowners who qualify for the program would have their closing costs covered, for an average savings of $3,000, according to administration estimate.
The fate of the Democratic refinancing proposals will rest with Republicans in both the House and Senate, and they got off to a rocky start with the GOP on Tuesday.
Republican Sens. Richard Shelby and Bob Corker warned during Tuesday's hearing that any attempt to bypass the Senate Banking Committee will not be received well by the GOP.
"I'm hearing rumors that some of these bills may go straight to the floor and not come through the committee," Corker said. "I hope that the chairman will not let the rumors that we're hearing become reality."
Shelby agreed: "The committee is the best forum - I believe, right here - to facilitate careful deliberations and the needed compromises. In contrast, bypassing the committee and proceeding directly to the floor with any legislation will almost certainly result in partisan gridlock."
Following Tuesday's hearing, Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson declined to comment on his plans for moving the refinancing bills. "I have not talked to the leadership about this issue," he said.
The proposal to refinance privately owned mortgages into government-backed loans appears to face the toughest fight with Republicans, who object to expanding the government's exposure to the mortgage market.
But at Tuesday's hearing, GOP senators indicated that they are also not happy with the way that Democrats are proposing to deal with the impediment to refinancing posed by second liens.
"Candidly, shouldn't the second lien automatically be extinguished first, period, gone?" Corker said. "Why would we give any credit at all to a second lien when you're writing down any portion, even a penny, of the first lien?"