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House Votes to Expedite Credit Card Rules

The House voted on Wednesday to accelerate the enactment date of tough new rules for credit card companies after voters complained of a rise in interest rates and steep new fees.

The bill, approved 331-92, would force lenders to comply with the new rules immediately unless they agree to freeze interest rates and fees.

The proposal's chances in the Senate were dim, where several lawmakers worried that a short deadline would hurt the industry and limit the availability of credit.

Nevertheless, investors seemed to take notice of the House rhetoric. Bank stocks tumbled in the last hour of trading on Wednesday immediately after the House vote, causing a late-day slump in the market.

Democrats said the bill was a warning shot to lenders to stop price gouging.

"This is both real and a lesson to them," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

Last spring, Congress passed legislation that would protect debt-ridden consumers from many of the surprise changes that have become common in the industry. President Obama signed that bill into law in May and most of the new rules will take effect on Feb. 22, 2010.

Under the new law, lenders won't be able to increase rates on existing balances suddenly unless a person is more than 60 days behind on a payment. Banks also couldn't give cards to people under 21 unless a parent co-signed or the cardholder could prove they had the means to pay back the loan.

To assuage concerns in the Senate that the restrictions were too onerous, Democrats gave banks nine months to prepare for the changes.

But lawmakers say that many credit card companies have used the grace period to increase rates. According to a recent Pew study, even the lowest interest rates offered on most bank cards have jumped by more than 20 percent since last year.

"The same companies that were in my office that claimed they needed months at least to make changes to their systems, apparently only needed in some cases days to find ways to raise interest rates and decrease credit limits on customers across the country," said Rep. Dan Maffei, a New York Democrat.

The House approved an amendment by Maffei to enforce the new rules immediately, instead of the Dec. 1 date proposed by the bill's sponsor, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

A separate provision, by Democratic Reps. Carolyn McCarthy of New York and Betsy Markey of Colorado, was adopted to allow banks to escape the regulations if they agree to freeze interest rates and fees until the February law takes effect.

The proposal was a nod to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, who has proposed an immediate freeze on interest rates and fees on existing balances until February.

But a vote on either measure in the Senate was considered highly unlikely because of lingering concerns by many senators that the bill could restrict credit when Americans need it most.

Banks deny that they are increasing rates ahead of the February deadline and blame fee increases on the economic downturn. Lenders say that providing customers unsecured loans has become a costly business because of the large number of defaults. Restricting fees will limit access to credit, they say.

House Republicans who opposed the bill said Congress was to blame for the recent rate increases because it meddled in the market and made it tougher on banks to lend money.

The bill "limits choice, rations credit, increases costs and it strangles innovation," said Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Financial Services Committee.