US President Barack Obama speaks to congressional leaders at the White House on January 23, 2009. From left to right: Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), President Obama and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV). (Photo: Getty Images)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday gave her support to legislation that would allow bankruptcy judges to modify troubled mortgages, saying it is a "very high priority and should be passed as soon as possible."
Democrats have been considering whether to include the provision in the economic stimulus package making its way through Congress or attempt to pass it as a stand-alone bill. "Either way, I'd like to get it passed as soon as possible," the California Democrat said.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters that the provision has support in both the House and Senate, but its inclusion in economic stimulus legislation would probably make it more difficult for that package to pass in the Senate. "President Obama, as you know, said he is for doing this but would prefer not to do this in the package because this package is so critical to get this done," Hoyer said. "Whether or not it is included in this bill or subsequent bill still remains to be seen."
Some Democrats, including Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, have been pushing for the provision since 2007, but have faced strong resistance from the banking industry. The effort received a boost earlier this month when Citigroup reached a deal with Senate leaders to support the provision. According to a congressional aide, two other large banks are actively negotiating with Durbin.
Pelosi's comments came as the House Judiciary Committee debated versions of the legislation, which would allow bankruptcy judges to change the terms of a mortgage by reducing its interest rate, extending its length or lowering the loan balance, known as cramdown provisions.
"A year ago modifying mortgages in bankruptcy seemed radical," Adam J. Levitin, a Georgetown University associate law professor, told the committee. "Now it is a moderate response. Our choices today are bankruptcy modification or nothing."
While banking executives privately acknowledge that some type of legislation is likely to pass, they argue that its scope should be limited.
"The bankruptcy provisions under consideration are too broad and do not restrict who would be eligible for relief," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.). "Americans undoubtedly want solutions to the foreclosure crisis. But I do not believe they want solutions that amount to absolving borrowers of their responsibility."
The change could also leave bankruptcy judges overwhelmed if borrowers flood into the system, Christopher J. Mayer, senior vice dean at Columbia Business School, told the committee.