Press Item
For Immediate Release: 
April 29, 2008
Contact Info: 
Julie Hirschfeld Davis

Associated Press

The Democrats' housing rescue plan is picking up converts among Republicans who are shrugging off White House objections after getting an earful from voters struggling to stave off foreclosure.

The GOP support is coming from regions hardest-hit by the housing crisis, a sign that battle lines over how to address the mortgage meltdown are more geographic than partisan.

Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, an Ohio Republican, says housing officials in his area have warned him that "a ton" of his constituents have adjustable-rate mortgages that will reset to unaffordable rates this year or next.

Lawmakers who fail to work together on a solution will do so "at their peril," said LaTourette, who is backing Democrat Barney Frank's plan.

"This has the ability to keep people in their houses," said LaTourette, a seventh-term congressman who is facing a competitive re-election race.

As for President Bush's opposition, he says Bush and his team are "just not thinking clearly on this."

The measure, sponsored by Frank, D-Mass., the Financial Services Committee chairman, would allow the Federal Housing Administration to take on up to $300 billion in refinanced loans for struggling homeowners.

The Depression-era mortgage insurer would have to relax its standards to let people with bad credit, a hefty debt load and a history of missing payments qualify for government-backed loans now restricted to financially stable borrowers.

Homeowners would have to show they could afford to make the new payments, and lenders would have to agree to take substantial losses on the existing loans so borrowers could refinance into cheaper, fixed-rate mortgages.

The vast majority of Republicans still side with Bush, whose top housing officials have said the plan would open the government to excessive risk. The administration backs a far narrower program that would loosen FHA standards but would be limited to borrowers with good credit, less debt and a history of making timely payments. That plan wouldn't force lenders to take big losses on the distressed mortgages.

But Frank, known for reaching across party lines, has been working intensely to draw GOP support for his plan. His efforts appear to be paying off as the House heads toward a likely vote on the bill next week.

Rep. Gary Miller, R-Calif., apologized profusely to Republicans on the Financial Services panel for his decision to break with them and support Frank's bill.

"Politics is being set aside on my part. I'm a conservative. I really wish I could support my Republican colleagues on this," Miller said as the committee began work on the measure last week. But he added, "I'm very concerned about the marketplace. I'm concerned about the economy. ... People are suffering in this country."

Aside from having the second-highest foreclosure rates, his state of California has some of the highest housing prices in the country. Miller wants Congress to raise loan limits for the FHA and for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored financiers and guarantors, to bring down interest rates on larger mortgages.

Frank has said the final housing package will include such steps.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., whose state is in the top five in the nation for foreclosures, has signed on as a co-sponsor of the measure.

"I go home every weekend. I see people (and) our office helps people who are having problems with foreclosures, and I think it's a responsible approach," Brown-Waite said.

In better economic times, Brown-Waite said, she would be more reticent to embrace government intervention, but, "When you look at the number of foreclosures in Florida alone and in other states, the role of government certainly isn't to bail them out, but to give them a helping hand."

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a moderate facing a competitive re-election race and a lawmaker who is known for crossing party lines, is the only other Republican co-sponsor.

Republicans backing the measure say they're cheered by certain elements included in the hopes of drawing bipartisan support. The program is voluntary, so no mortgage servicer would be forced to participate. It lets the government share a hefty portion of the proceeds from any sale or refinancing, to discourage homeowners from using the program to "flip" their houses for a profit on the government's dime. And because the FHA would collect fees and premiums on the refinancing as well as sharing in any appreciation of the properties, Frank says the two-year program would cost only $3 billion to $6 billion.

It's unclear how broad the GOP support will be, and whether it will extend to the Senate, where Christopher J. Dodd, the Banking Committee chairman, is working on a similar plan. Frank's bill is expected to get a final vote in his committee this week, after lawmakers consider dozens of mostly minor changes proposed by members of both parties.

Republicans are more united in their opposition to another piece of the Democrats' housing package that is expected to be paired with Frank's bill when the House considers it next week: sending $15 billion in loans and grants to states to buy and rehabilitate foreclosed properties. The Bush administration has indicated the president would veto that plan, but even it has some GOP advocates.

LaTourette and Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, agreed to back it after Frank tweaked the formula — tailored to help areas with the highest foreclosure rates — to give their state an additional $150 million. Ohio is in the top 10 in foreclosure rates.

"These lawmakers are hearing from their mayors; they're hearing from their state representatives; they're hearing from their governors. There's a real recognition at the state and local level that this is a problem that's going to require some government intervention," said Andrew Jakabovics, a housing analyst at the Center for American Progress.

"These guys are up for re-election and they're going to need to be able to face voters and say. 'Look, we've done everything we can.'"