WASHINGTON - The Senate is expected to approve bankruptcy reform legislation as early as Tuesday and intensify what promises to be lengthy struggle between the White House and Republican congressional leaders over the final bill.
Debate resumed Wednesday in the Senate for the first time since adjournment in November, when the legislation was left unfinished because of partisan disagreements. Congress returned Monday with the fate of the bill still up in the air, but Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle reached a procedural compromise that would permit Democrats to offer two controversial, peripheral amendments and let the legislation advance.
The House passed its version of the bankruptcy bill last May. The banking industry generally favors the stricter House bill, but the Clinton administration said last fall that it opposes the House bill and could accept the Senate bill, depending on which amendments succeeded.
Supporters thought the Senate bill had cleared its final hurdle and was headed for approval this week until more than 10 inches of snow ground the capital to a near-halt. As a result, votes on amendments and final passage were rescheduled for next Tuesday.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, an hour after dropping out of the presidential race Wednesday, said there was no more time for delay on legislation that would make it harder for unworthy borrowers to erase debts completely under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code.
"Our current system allows some people who are able to pay their debts to avoid doing so," the Utah Republican said. "These abuses are a major and significant problem in our society" because they let some people live "high on the hog" and force lenders to charge the average American family an extra $400 a year to cover chargeoffs, he said.
But Sen. Paul D. Wellstone said a recent Consumer Federation of America report that said bankruptcy filings had fallen 8% in 1999 showed there is no crisis demanding immediate action. He said the bill should be reshaped to crack down more on irresponsible lenders.
"This bill gives the credit card companies everything they want," said the Minnesota Democrat, who urged President Clinton to veto the legislation. "It contains numerous provisions that are harshly punitive to citizens who are the most vulnerable."
Fourteen amendments are set to be considered by the Senate. Lenders planned to fight a few of them strongly, including an effort by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., to toughen consumer protection disclosures on credit card statements. Sen. Sarbanes and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm were trying to craft a compromise Wednesday, but details remained sketchy.