WASHINGTON The Bush administration announced new steps Wednesday to help more homeowners head off foreclosure, clashing with lawmakers in both parties who want the government to step in with a broader housing rescue.
Scrambling to counter Democratic calls for a large federal housing-aid package, the administration said it would use an existing Federal Housing Administration program to enable more low- and moderate-income homeowners to refinance into government-insured mortgages with monthly payments they can afford.
It is a more modest version of a concept Democrats have recently been pushing to respond to the housing crisis, which would have the FHA back from $300 billion to $400 billion in restructured loans for distressed borrowers if lenders were willing to take a substantial loss on the mortgages.
The administration's idea, however, would reach far fewer borrowers than the Democrats' proposal roughly 100,000 rather than between 1 million and 2 million without requiring lenders to take large losses.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the Financial Services Committee chairman, opened a hearing on his broader plan by noting sarcastically that the timing of the administration's proposal was a "remarkable coincidence." He later said that in light of repeated warnings by Federal Reserve economists about the consequences of inaction, President Bush appeared to have realized that stonewalling would not work.
Frank told regulators that the plan was a recognition that some government action was needed, and that it should start with lenders taking losses on distressed loans.
"Anyone who thinks we should do nothing," he said, "will have to deal with me and the Bush administration."
Bush's plan would expand the program created last year, known as FHASecure, designed to help homeowners who have some equity in their homes and have kept up with their mortgage payments, but are facing a hefty rate hike to refinance into a government-insured fixed-rate loan.
Democrats say the initiative has done too little for struggling homeowners and doesn't reach the vast majority of hard-pressed borrowers.
Under the expansion, homeowners would be eligible for refinanced FHA loans, even if they had made a couple of late payments.
"Our common ground is to help FHA become a safe harbor for many Americans," FHA Commissioner Brian Montgomery said at the hearing.
The proposal "is not a silver bullet that will solve all the problems in housing, but it will help some additional people stay in their homes and that's something the president wants to see," said White House press secretary Dana Perino.
At the same time, the administration raised serious concerns about Frank's bill, which Montgomery said was an overly rigid approach that would put the government at inappropriate risk, while essentially forcing some lenders and investors to take losses.
In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., administration officials rejected Frank's idea of letting lenders sell distressed mortgages through the government, arguing that it would "essentially put taxpayers on the hook for a large number of non-performing loans."
In their letter, Keith Hennessey, Bush's top economic adviser, and Karl Zinsmeister, his domestic policy adviser, also came out against providing loans and grants to state and local governments for purchasing and rehabilitating foreclosed homes. They called it "a costly bailout for lenders and speculators."
Frank's bill would provide $10 billion in such funding, while a bipartisan Senate bill slated for a final vote on Thursday includes $4 billion.
The officials also shot down housing tax measures that enjoy some degree of bipartisan support, including a credit proposed by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., for the purchase of foreclosed homes. They said they opposed allowing people who don't itemize their deductions to claim them on their property taxes.
Both are elements of the Senate measure. Its centerpiece is a $25 billion tax break for homebuilders and other businesses absorbing heavy losses now to reclaim taxes paid when times were good. Senators were to vote today on adding another $6 billion worth of tax breaks for the renewable energy industry.
The Senate bill also includes $100 million for pre-foreclosure counseling and stronger loan disclosure requirements.
Proponents called the plan an important first step in addressing the nation's economic woes, but some lawmakers in both parties are cool to the bill, saying it would do little to help people staring at foreclosures or to bolster the shaky housing market.
Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill Wednesday that instead would steer tax breaks toward first-time home-buyers and investors in low-income rental housing. That bill likely will be paired with Frank's broader measure, expected to see a vote in May.