Backed by the White House, a chief proponent of Senate-passed legislation to overhaul bankruptcy laws is challenging House lawmakers to soften their more stringent bill.
Both versions would make it harder for people to sweep away their debts by declaring bankruptcy.The Senate overwhelmingly approved the measure Wednesday. The vote was 97-1, with Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., the only one to oppose it.
Pushed by alarm over the rising tide of personal bankruptcies and a lobbying campaign by credit card companies, the House passed its tougher version in June. In contrast to the Senate's near-unanimous approval, the House vote was 306-118, splitting the Democrats while Republicans were in solid support.
The Clinton administration supports changing bankruptcy laws but does not support the House-passed bill. With only a few weeks remaining in the congressional session, lawmakers face a daunting task of reconciling the two versions and sending President Clinton a bill he will accept.
"The Senate bill strikes the proper balance between creditors and the consumers," White House spokesman Barry Toiv said after the vote Wednesday. "The House bill provides inadequate protection for consumers, and it's definitely unacceptable in its current form."
For Congress to enact a veto-proof measure, House lawmakers must not take the view "that their bill is perfect," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, author of the Senate version with Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
"There has to be give-and-take to get a compromise," but the possibility of one "is very realistic," Grassley told reporters.
Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., a key author of the House bill, also expressed optimism for a compromise despite the substantial dif-fer-ences.
While lawmakers worry about the surge in personal bankruptcies despite the strong economy, some insist that credit card companies, which aggressively solicit customers, share the blame. Unpaid credit card debt is estimated at $40 billion, and companies say they are being forced to charge higher interest rates that hurt consumers who handle credit responsibly.
When drafting the bill in consultation with White House negotiators, senators included some provisions to protect consumers. But several consumer groups complained the bill does too little to address "unfair and abusive" practices by the retail credit industry and fails to provide a safety net for personal financial disasters.
The number of Americans filing personal bankruptcies last year jumped to almost 1.4 million, up more than 300 percent since 1980.
Both the House and Senate versions would make it more difficult for people to simply file court papers and erase their bills.
The House measure would require people who earn at least the median U.S. income, about $51,000 for a family of four, 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.
But the Senate bill would give some discretion to the bankruptcy judge, who would have to consider a debtor's ability to repay. A Chapter 13 reorganization generally would be required if the debtor could pay back 30 percent or more within three years.
Credit card companies complain that too many people take shelter under the more lenient Chapter 7, which erases debts, when they could afford to restructure their debts under Chapter 13.
In the Senate action, Sens. John Glenn, D-Ohio, and John Warner, R-Va., did not vote.