Democrats Call on Bush to Do More in Response to Housing Crunch

Democrats called on President Bush Friday to endorse their housing assistance package that would let bankruptcy judges reduce loan amounts and interest payments for homeowners staring at foreclosure.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Bush should lean on congressional Republicans to allow votes on the measure, which also would provide $200 million in counseling to distressed borrowers.

"At the center of this crisis is housing — that's at the bullseye — and yet still the administration refuses to step up to the plate and do what's needed," said Schumer, chairman of the congressional Joint Economic Committee.

"The administration joined by (congressional Republicans) in their Herbert Hoover-like attitude of do nothing, twiddle your thumbs while the economy gets worse, especially in the housing area, is not going to sit well with the American public," Schumer told reporters in a conference call.

His comments came as Bush was scheduled to visit a debt counseling center in Freehold, N.J. to tout his administration's actions to address the mortgage crisis.

The president has come out strongly against the Democrats' housing package and warned against an overzealous governmental response to the nation's housing woes.

Bush argues that his administration has reacted effectively to the crisis by letting the Federal Housing Administration help more struggling homeowners refinance so they can afford to stay in their homes, allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy up more home loans, and helping form a mortgage industry group to help people facing foreclosures.

Democrats, however, say those actions are not enough. They are planning a test-vote Tuesday on their measure, which would also let localities with the highest foreclosure rates access federal grants to buy foreclosed properties.

The proposal fell well short of the 60 votes it would have needed to advance when the Senate took it up last month, with all but one Republican opposing it.

In a letter Friday to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the darkening economic clouds "heighten the urgency that Congress act to help American families and communities facing an escalation of foreclosures."

"In short, the federal government has provided assistance to Wall Street; now Congress must turn its attention to Main Street," Reid wrote.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., the Banking Committee Chairman, said he wants to attach a broad housing overhaul to the package. His plan — similar to one being crafted by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the House Financial Services Committee chairman — would let the government step in and back up to $400 billion in troubled loans.

The proposal is likely to face opposition from Republicans who regard it as heavy-handed government intervention that could leave taxpayers on the hook for a mortgage bailout. Democrats, though, are pressing their argument that the government should be as willing to assist homeowners as it was to help investment banks weather a credit crunch.

"If (the Bush administration) can spend all weekend figuring out a way to avoid a problem with Bear Stearns, you can spend a little time to keep people in their homes who were lured into deals ... that were fraudulent and harmful," Dodd said in an interview.