Dashing hopes for a bipartisan bill, Republican lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee repeatedly beat back Democratic efforts Wednesday to change bankruptcy reform legislation.
The panel plans to wrap up its work on the bill today, and a vote on the House floor is expected next week.
Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., said Republicans blew a chance to bring Democrats aboard. "There could have been significant bipartisan support for this bill coming out of committee," he said. "I'm very disappointed. I thought we had made progress. (Instead) we are moving backward."
The bill would bar consumers with large disposable incomes from eliminating all their debts in Chapter 7 rather than repaying some unsecured creditors in Chapter 13. Judges would force a debtor to use Chapter 13 if the filer could afford, after "reasonable" living expenses, to repay $6,000 over five years.
The Senate Judiciary Committee today will vote on a similar reform bill. It would require those with large disposable incomes to use Chapter 13 if they could afford to repay $15,000 over five years.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde started the panel's two days of voting on a conciliatory note, proposing three amendments addressing Democratic demands for more protections for debtors with low incomes.
That cooperative spirit, however, all but disappeared Wednesday.
Republicans defeated, 18 to 13, an amendment that would bar debtors from eliminating in bankruptcy any judgments or court-ordered fines stemming from attacks on abortion clinics. A similar amendment is expected to be introduced today during the Senate Judiciary vote on bankruptcy.
"We must ensure there are no loopholes for lawbreakers, harassers, and hate mongers," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y, who sponsored the amendment.
The amendment is necessary, he said, because proponents of violence against abortion clinics have vowed to use the bankruptcy code to avoid paying fines. "No one should use the bankruptcy code to stand above decrees of the court," he said.
Republicans, however, said provisions in the existing bankruptcy code bar people from discharging debts arising from "willful and malicious" conduct. "This is already in the law," Rep. Hyde said.
Other Republicans charged that Rep. Nadler was using the abortion issue to delay passage. "This is a good way to derail this bill," said Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla.
But Rep. Nadler said the Supreme Court has narrowly defined the "willful and malicious" standard, making it possible for someone who bombs a clinic at night to discharge a monetary penalty by arguing that he did not intend to hurt anyone.