Senate Moves Toward Easing Mortgage Terms

WASHINGTON – Trying to curb home foreclosures, the Senate voted on Wednesday to make it easier for homeowners with risky credit to switch to a lower-cost mortgage backed by the government. The bill, passed 91-5, also would give banks a break by encouraging reduced fees they must pay for the government to insure deposits.

While both steps put taxpayer money on the line, lawmakers say the legislation is needed to prevent the economy from getting worse.

"Given the size and scope of the struggles too many Nevadans and Americans endure, it will take more time before housing normalizes again," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "But with this bill, we are working to hasten that day so that no family will ever accept losing its home as the way it is."

Absent from the measure was a bankruptcy provision that President Barack Obama had promised to push through Congress, but backed down amid stiff opposition from banks. The provision, rejected by the Senate last week in a 45-51 vote, would have allowed bankruptcy judges to lower a person's mortgage payment.

While the House included the provision when it passed its version of the bill in March, lawmakers said it didn't have enough support to insist it be included in the final compromise bill. The two chambers have to iron out their differences in the legislation before it can be sent to Obama to sign.

"That issue is a dead letter," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Banking Committee.

Also on Wednesday, the House agreed to a Senate-passed bill that would hire hundreds more FBI agents and prosecutors to investigate mortgage fraud. The legislation, expected to reach the president's desk soon, also would establish a $5 million, independent commission to investigate the cause of the financial crisis and chart a path forward.

The Senate housing bill would expand an existing $300 billion program called "Hope for Homeowners," which encourages lenders to write down an individual's mortgage if the homeowner agrees to pay an insurance premium. The program, which is set to expire in 2011, is intended to swap out a homeowner's high-interest rate for a 30-year fixed loan backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

So far, the program has been a dud.

When it was established last year, Congress envisioned helping some 400,000 troubled homeowners. But because eligibility requirements were so strict, one borrower has completed the refinancing process and only 51 more are in the works, according to statistics released last week.

The Senate bill would expand eligibility. For example, the program currently bans participants who intentionally defaulted on the mortgage or other substantial debt. The Senate bill would narrow that prohibition to defaults within the last five years.

Republicans swung behind the proposal to expand the program using $2 billion from the $700 billion Wall Street bailout fund. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Banking Committee, co-sponsored the bill with Dodd.

Still, some Republicans warned that increasing the burden of the government to insure risky mortgages — even if it saves people from foreclosure — could backfire. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who called the Federal Housing Administration a potential "ticking time bomb," proposed letting the administration suspend any programs that threaten its solvency.

His effort was defeated 36-56.

Another issue is whether Hope for Homeowners will be enough to keep people in their homes, considering other voluntary efforts haven't provided homeowners steep discounts. According to a report released last month by federal regulators, fewer than half of the loan modifications made by lenders at the end of last year reduced payments by more than 10 percent.

The Senate housing bill also would permanently increase the borrowing authority for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation from $30 billion to $100 billion. Increasing the FDIC's credit would allow the agency to reduce large new premiums it has begun charging banks to insure deposits.

In addition, the bill extends through 2013 an increase in deposit insurance by the FDIC from $100,000 to $250,000.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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