WASHINGTON – President Bush and Congress are clashing over how to address the housing crisis, clouding the prospects of an election-year rescue package.
Bush said Wednesday he would veto Democrats' broad housing aid plan, saying it wouldn't help struggling homeowners.
"We are committed to a good housing bill that will help folks stay in their house, as opposed to a housing bill that will reward speculators and lenders," Bush said at the White House after meeting with House Republican leaders.
The measure, aimed at preventing foreclosures, would have the government step in to insure up to $300 billion in new mortgages for distressed homeowners. A House vote is expected by Thursday.
The bill by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., would relax standards at the Federal Housing Administration so it could back more affordable, fixed-rate loans for borrowers currently too financially strapped to qualify.
Those homeowners could refinance into new loans if their lenders agreed to take substantial losses on the original mortgages. Borrowers would have to show they could afford to make payments on the new loans. They would have to share with FHA at least half of their proceeds if they profited from selling or refinancing again.
Despite growing GOP support for the plan, especially among Republicans from areas hardest hit by the housing crisis, it could fall victim to an election-year fight over which party is doing more to help homeowners in need.
"Democrats have a plan to stabilize the housing market and the economy as a whole; President Bush has a plan to sit on his hands for nine more months," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, said in a statement.
The White House calls the plan a burdensome bailout that would open taxpayers to too much risk.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Wednesday called the plan too broad. In an interview with The Associated Press, Paulson said the administration would continue negotiating with Congress to come up with an acceptable bill, but he did not offer any details of what kind of mortgage relief the administration would support.
"Housing is an important area and there are certain things that we need to get done there from Congress," he said. "We are working to get a housing bill that the president can sign."
The White House has also threatened that Bush would veto a separate bill to send $15 billion to states to buy and fix up foreclosed properties. Officials say that measure rewards lenders and investors who own the property, and could act as an incentive for them to foreclose rather than find ways to help struggling borrowers stay in their homes.
The opposition comes despite Democrats' attempts to attract Republican support for their housing package by including a grab-bag of measures Bush has called for.
Those include legislation to overhaul the FHA, the Depression-era mortgage insurer, and to more tightly regulate Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored companies that finance home loans. Also part of the plan is a measure, which Bush has repeatedly requested, allowing state and local housing finance agencies to use tax-exempt bonds to refinance distressed subprime mortgages.
The plan's main element by Frank, the Financial Services Committee chairman, is projected to help roughly 500,000 borrowers at a cost of $2.7 billion over the next five years.
GOP leaders strongly oppose the housing package, which they say would help reckless borrowers who overextended themselves, unscrupulous lenders, and investors who tried to game the market at the expense of renters and homeowners who made wiser choices.
"Why should American taxpayers be footing the bill for calculated mistakes made by others?" Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said as the House began debating the foreclosed-property bill.
Frank said that measure was necessary to prevent neighborhoods pocked with abandoned, foreclosed properties from sliding into blight.
The $15 billion to purchase and rehabilitate the property, Frank noted, "is half of what this administration offered" to rescue failing investment house Bear Stearns Cos. earlier this year.