JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON
Struggling homeowners who can't afford their mortgages and banks facing big losses would get government help under a foreclosure rescue that has broad bipartisan support. The plan is headed for Senate passage today, but faces a bumpy road, with the House planning a rewrite and the White House threatening a veto without major changes. With the last procedural hurdles scaled Thursday, the package was on track for resounding approval in the Senate. It has drawn broad support in the Senate, reflecting widespread interest by lawmakers in both parties in sending election-year help to struggling homeowners facing tough economic times. The centerpiece of the plan would let the Federal Housing Administration back up to $300 billion in new loans to give struggling homeowners more affordable, fixed-rate mortgages. It allows lenders who agree to take a substantial loss on the mortgages to reclaim at least some money and avoid a costly foreclosure. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the Financial Services Committee chairman and an architect of the bill, said the few but significant revisions House leaders are seeking could be made in as little as one week. Key players are preparing for a week of intense negotiations to resolve differences on Capitol Hill and with the White House, with an eye toward producing a bill President Bush could sign later this month. The measure includes a long-sought modernization of the FHA and would create a new regulator and tighter controls on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage giants. It also would provide $14.5 billion in housing tax breaks, including a credit of up to $8,000 for first-time home buyers. Congressional Democrats are divided over important elements of the plan, including limits on loans the FHA may insure and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac may buy. The Senate measure sets them at $625,000, while House leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., want the cap as high as $730,000. House leaders also oppose the immediate effective date of the Senate plan, preferring to phase in the new regulations for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac over six months. Another key point of dispute is $3.9 Billion in the Senate measure for buying and rehabilitating foreclosed properties. The House's band of conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats oppose the money, arguing that it would swell the deficit unless paired with cuts or tax increases to cover the cost. But many Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are fighting to keep the funding, which they say will help prevent the communities hardest hit by the housing crisis from sliding into blight. The White House singled out the money in its veto threat, calling it a bailout for lenders who helped cause the mortgage meltdown. Lawmakers and the Bush administration agree on the central concept behind the measure: allowing the government to backstop new mortgages for struggling homeowners. To make it more palatable to Republicans, the Senate measure would take responsibility for any losses away from taxpayers and instead cover them by diverting an affordable housing fund drawn from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac profits.