Moving toward the most far-reaching overhaul of the nation's bankruptcy laws in 20 years, the House must decide whether it should be more difficult for Americans to avoid paying debts.

Opponents charge that lawmakers are bending to the banking industry and credit card lobbies at the expense of honest working people hit by financial disaster.The House bill under consideration would establish for the first time a "needs" test for people filing for bankruptcy court protection from creditors.

It would require people earning at least the median U.S. income, about $51,000, to file for financial reorganization under Chapter 13, subject to a court-ordered repayment plan, if they can pay back 20 percent of their debt within five years.

Credit card companies have complained that too many people have taken shelter under the more lenient Chapter 7, which erases some debts, when they can actually afford to reorganize their debts under Chapter 13.

"This bill is going to affect the enormous increase in bankruptcies," Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., a chief sponsor, said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

McCollum said support for the measure is broad and bipartisan, with most Republicans and about one in four Democratic lawmakers endorsing it, likely assuring House passage.

The House was expected to take up the measure Wednesday.

The Clinton administration, which supports some changes in the bankruptcy laws, has said it cannot support the House bill in its current form. The administration prefers a more temperate Senate measure but also would like to see changes in it.

The House is acting in response to a staggering trend. Despite the strong economy, the number of Americans filing personal bankruptcies last year jumped to 1.2 million - up more than 300 percent since 1980.