By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008
President Bush yesterday signed two of the most significant measures of his presidency -- one the most sweeping housing legislation in decades and the other an extension of his massive global program to combat AIDS and HIV infections in the developing world.
The housing bill, which was signed in an early morning private ceremony, is aimed at calming rocky financial markets and giving mortgage relief to up to 400,000 homeowners. Bush had previously vowed to veto the bill because of some of its provisions.
The AIDS bill, in contrast, was signed in a celebratory public flourish yesterday afternoon, and it aims to expand and extend the global program. The legislation authorizes $48 billion to be spent during the next five years to treat and prevent AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, with AIDS accounting for $39 billion of the total. The expenditures would dwarf the $15 billion spent over the previous five years as part of Bush's emergency anti-AIDS efforts, which the president and even many of his detractors view as one of the biggest accomplishments of his tenure.
"We are a compassionate nation," Bush said at the ceremony. "And that's what this bill says loud and clear."
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), who sponsored the bill, said its bipartisan support "is a tribute to what we can achieve in foreign policy when the cause is right and all parties work together in goodwill."
This bill overturns a restriction in place since 1992 preventing HIV-positive people from entering the United States without a waiver.
Bush's approval of the housing bill followed months of often-contentious negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House over how best to stabilize housing markets amid plummeting home values and a damaged credit system. The House passed the bill last week, but nearly three-quarters of the Republican members voted against it. The Senate approved it Saturday.
The law provides temporary authority to the administration to offer the struggling mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac an unlimited line of credit, a move designed to calm global concerns about the government-sponsored but investor-owned firms, which guarantee nearly half of all outstanding mortgages in the United States. The law also will establish a new regulator for Freddie and Fannie and overhaul the Federal Housing Administration.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the housing bill would "improve confidence and stability in markets," while also providing more oversight for the mammoth firms. Fratto said new policies implemented under the law are "intended to keep more deserving American families in their homes."
One of the key parts of the bill authorizes the FHA to help homeowners who, because of falling prices, owe their lenders more than their houses are worth. If lenders agree to forgive a portion of the debt and write new loans worth no more than 90 percent of the home's lower value, the FHA will insure the new loans and agree to pay off the lenders if borrowers default. Homeowners also will get an immediate equity stake in their properties, which they would have to share with the government if they sell or refinance.
The law increases the cap on loans handled by the FHA, as well as Fannie and Freddie, to $625,000.