Variable-rate mortgages would be available in all states under an amendment to banking reform legislation currently before a House committee.
The amendment, which passed the committee by a slim 24-to-20 margin, was opposed by a coalition of consumer groups and labor organizations.
But representatives of savings and loan associations in California - the only state where variable mortgages are readily available to home buyers - lobbied hard for the legislation.
Variable mortgage rates are supposed to rise and fall with an index published twice yearly by the San Francisco office of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.
Most home mortgage rates are fixed for the life of the loan.
Rep. Jerry Patterson (D-Calif.), who introduced the amendment to the House Banking, Currency and Urban Affairs Committee, called variable mortgages "consumer-oriented."
But Rep. Fernand St Germain (D-R.I.), author of the bank reform legislation that was amened, countered: "If it's so consumer-oriented, how come not one consumer group supports it?"
St Germain vowed to fight the amendment when the bill is debated on the House floor.
Amons groups to variable-rate mortgage, are the Consumer Federation of America, the National Consumers League, United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO.
Generally, these groups argue that variable mortgages shift the interest-rate risk from the lender to the borrower, who is not equipped to anticipate trends in the money markets.
Critics claim that the legislation is aimed at eventually doing away with fixed-rate mortgages, but the amendment says borrowers should be offered the choice between fixed and variable rates.
In the three years since California's state-chartered S&Ls began offering variable mortgages, the rate has not gone lower.
The FHLBB's index period ends on June 30, and the new figures, to be published in early August, are expected to push the interest rates for Californians with variable mortgages beyond the current 10 percent on 80 percent financing, according to an FHLBB spokeswoman in California.
St Germain argued yesterday that S&Ls were pushing hard for the amendment in anticipation of a reaction from borrowers if rates do, in fact, rise.
St Germain noted that the Patterson amendment was brought forward "without any hearings." His subcommittee had scheduled hearings for next month on various mortgage rate proposals, including variable rates.