The Senate voted 97 to 1 in favor of consumer bankruptcy reform legislation Wednesday, but the resounding tally belies the difficult challenge lawmakers face reconciling vastly different versions of the bill before adjourning next month.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the chief sponsor of the bill, told reporters after the vote the odds are "very realistic" that the House and Senate can reach a compromise that President Clinton will support.
"In the short time that is left in this legislative session, I will work hard to reconcile my proposal with the somewhat different approach adopted by the House," the Iowa Republican said. "Discussions will begin immediately."
Yet he acknowledged that House and Senate leaders will have to maneuver around strong, divergent mandates reflected in the wide margins of approval in each chamber. The House passed its version June 10 on a 306-to-18 vote.
Both bills would make it harder for consumers to eliminate unsecured debts in bankruptcy, but their approaches vary significantly.
The Senate 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. Only court-appointed trustees may make such requests under the current system.
The creditor would have to prove that the debtor is "abusing" the system by attempting to eliminate debt in Chapter 7 rather when the borrower could afford to repay at least 30% of unsecured debt over five years. The full Senate adopted that 30% standard in an amendment, raising it from the 20% threshold in an earlier version.
The House version, instead of relying on judicial discretion, would use a formula based on income and living expenses to determine whether consumers may discharge unsecured debts in Chapter 7. Consumers would be shifted into Chapter 13 if they could afford to cover their living expenses and repay all secured debt and at least 20% of unsecured debt.
The banking and credit card industries generally favor the House approach, but the President backs the Senate bill.
Besides disputes over contents, lawmakers could be distracted by spending bills and other matters. In particular, the House Judiciary Committee-whose leaders will play a key role in melding the two bankruptcy bills-is embroiled in deliberations over whether to impeach the President on the basis of the Starr report.
Echoing Sen. Grassley, industry officials hailed the overwhelming vote in the Senate and urged quick action.
"The message is clear from both houses that bankruptcy reform is urgent and needs to be enacted this year," said Thomas A. Layman, senior vice president and chief economist for Visa.
Industry officials will lobby for some changes. Of particular concern is a provision added to the Senate bill that would require credit card issuers to regularly disclose how long it would take a customer to pay down the entire card loan when paying only the minimum balance each month. Mr. Layman complained the measure could be costly while providing little benefit for consumers.