The House Judiciary Committee today unanimously approved a bill that would make it easier to obtain wage liens to ensure payment of overdue child support.

As amended by the committee, however, the bill differs substantially from the Senate-passed version, setting the stage for a repeat of the confrontation between the two houses that led to the defeat of a similar bill last year. Critics say the House version has been weakened considerably.

"I'm very concerned" about the amendments, said Ann C. Helton, executive director of the Child Support Enforcement Administration, a state agency that assists child support recipients in collecting money owed them.

"I do have to say they've put in some excellent work," Helton said, "but [some] of the amendments really hurt: They hurt the people it's supposed to help, and they help the people who don't pay."

Helton was chiefly concerned about an amendment that would allow judges more discretion in deciding whether to impose a wage withholding order.

Del. Elijah Cummings (D-Baltimore City), a member of the committee and part of the slender majority that approved the most controversial changes, defended the legislation, saying, "It has protections for both sides. . . .I think it's fair."

The House and Senate bills, virtually identical when introduced, were designed to bring Maryland into compliance with a new federal law requiring states to establish procedures for automatic imposition of wage liens on people who fail to pay court-ordered child support.

Both houses passed withholding bills last year, but the measures died when a conference committee could not resolve the differences.

This year's bills would require wage withholding orders to be drafted at the time a judge orders child support. The wage withholding would go into effect if courts are notified that the obligated parent falls more than 30 days behind in his or her payments.

The measures are designed to avoid costly court battles to recover child support that may be owed for several years. States that fail to pass such laws by October could be faced with loss of a portion of their federal welfare money.

Under the original bills and the current Senate version, the courts may refuse to impose the withholding only if they find that a mistake has been made.

Under an amendment offered by Del. Joel Chasnoff (D-Montgomery), however, the courts may consider "any other bonafide issues deemed appropriate by the courts." Critics called the amendment a loophole.

Said Chasnoff, however, "The guy could be in a shock trauma unit for two months and he can't pay. The guy could be in the General Assembly and he misses a payment . Or he could be on vacation or on a business trip -- all very good, bonafide reasons."