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Republicans Block Consideration of Housing Relief Package in Senate

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

Senate Republicans yesterday blocked consideration of a bill designed to prop up the struggling housing industry, declaring that the Democratic-backed provisions would harm mortgage lenders and inflame the housing crisis.

With a 48 to 46 vote, the Senate did not gain the 60 votes needed to halt a threatened filibuster on the housing package. The vote capped a week of parliamentary gridlock in the Senate, which spent nearly three days mired in an Iraq war debate without casting a substantive vote on the underlying bill mandating troop withdrawal.

Democrats, stymied in their effort to curb President Bush's Iraq policies, had hoped to begin debate on the housing bill to address the public's anxiety over the economy, which has supplanted the war in recent polls as the issue of greatest concern.

The housing proposal includes billions of dollars for local communities to buy up subprime mortgages and a controversial rewrite of bankruptcy laws to allow judges to slash interest rates for low-income homeowners. The mortgage industry has waged a stiff lobbying campaign against the bankruptcy provision.

Democrats mocked Bush's statements at yesterday's news conference, where he urged giving the $168 billion stimulus package approved this month a "chance to kick in first."

"That, to me, is straight out of the Herbert Hoover playbook," Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters, adding that his bankruptcy measure would save family homes. "Right now, there will be a question on the floor of the Senate as to whether the mortgage bankers are going to win or the American families facing foreclosure are going to win."

But Republicans argued that the Durbin provision would wreak havoc on the housing market, forcing the mortgage industry to recoup costs some other way, said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who was secretary of housing and urban development in Bush's first term.

"The bankruptcy provisions don't have anything to do with the housing problem, and they're going to raise interest rates," Martinez said.

Democratic aides said Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) will bring the legislation back for a final push, possibly later next week, when the leading Democratic presidential candidates will have returned after Tuesday's critical primaries.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would support beginning debate on the housing package if Republicans were allowed to offer a handful of amendments related to the economy, including provisions related to cutting taxes.

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