Antiabortion Republicans, defying party leaders and many of their biggest financial supporters, are threatening to block indefinitely enactment of a law that would make it harder for Americans to shed their debt by filing for bankruptcy.
After staging a rebellion with help from groups such as the Christian Coalition, the lawmakers early yesterday morning forced party leaders to strip from the bipartisan bankruptcy bill a controversial provision. The provision would have prohibited abortion protesters from using bankruptcy to escape court-imposed fines that stem from damage or violence committed at abortion clinics.
This doomed hopes for an overhaul of bankruptcy laws, at least in the lame-duck session that is expected to end early next week.
The rebellion by antiabortion Republicans showed the strength of social conservatives, particularly in the House, and presaged a broader campaign by them to influence the party's agenda.
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott (Miss.) already has promised Christian leaders he will push for a vote to ban a procedure that opponents call "partial birth" abortion. A small group of socially conservative House members on Tuesday will call on President Bush to pressure the Big Brothers Big Sisters program to let parents know if their child's mentor is gay.
At the same time, opponents of abortion rights who brought down the bankruptcy bill are showing no signs of relenting.
"When it comes to babies and mothers versus money, I think human life trumps money," said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), head of the congressional Pro-Life Caucus. "We will fight this very, very aggressively."
The House passed the bankruptcy code overhaul, 244 to 116, after the abortion provision was removed early this morning. Seven hours earlier, with the abortion language intact, the bill had been handily defeated on a procedural vote.
Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said yesterday: "House Republicans killed bankruptcy. . . . It's another example of how the far right controls" them.
The House action represents a huge defeat for credit card, banking and other companies that have fought for years to make it harder for people to wipe out their debt by declaring bankruptcy.
Many Americans now can erase virtually all their debt, including recent purchases they clearly could not afford, by declaring bankruptcy. Banks and other lenders say they eat the losses or, more frequently, pass them on to other consumers through higher interest rates or fees.
Consumer groups say the bankruptcy proposals are too harsh for consumers who are facing hard times because of divorce, sickness or job loss. They also say credit card companies are free to lure consumers into debt with offers of high borrowing limits with low interest rates that later rise.
Business officials and consumer advocates see risks, and possible rewards, in having the bill pushed into the next Congress, when Republicans will control the House and Senate.
Business groups say they believe a new version will be at least as strong, from their point of view, as the bill the House voted on early yesterday morning. But they worry that opponents will offer amendments dealing with extraneous issues, such as abortion, gun control or the minimum wage, making it harder to pass.