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Big banks, scrambling to prevent the government from forcing them to rewrite mortgages for struggling homeowners, are using their lobbying clout to press the Obama administration and Congress to scale back a key measure to rescue borrowers from foreclosures.
The legislation, expected to pass the House on Thursday, would let bankruptcy judges reduce the principal and interest rate on a home loan. That essentially would require mortgage companies to let debt-strapped homeowners reduce their monthly payments rather than lose their main residences.
Obama called for it last week as part of his housing rescue plan. Democrats and consumer advocates regard it as crucial to slowing the rapid rate of foreclosures.
But the mortgage industry contends the measure will impose steep and unpredictable costs on its companies, which will be forced to pass them along to borrowers in the form of higher fees and interest rates. The industry spent millions last year on a successful lobbying effort to kill the bill, which almost all Republicans oppose. Opponents call it the "cram-down."
Other banks have changed their strategy, but not their position. They are continuing efforts to squash the legislation, but also have stepped up their bid to gut key provisions. Among their goals: restrict the measure to certain kinds or sizes of home loans, certain borrowers, or situations where the mortgage holder _ known as the loan servicer _ agrees to the changes.
"I don't see a scenario where we can ever support this, but we're trying to make it the least-worst way to do the wrong thing," said Scott Talbott, a lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade group representing large banks. The group spent $7.8 million last year lobbying on this and other issues. "There are efforts being made to change the bill right now," Talbott said Wednesday, as Democratic leaders were putting the last touches on the measure to be voted on Thursday.
"We continue to be opposed to the bill and that hasn't changed, but we do live in the real world, and we do understand that this is very likely to happen, and we owe it to our members to recognize that reality and to limit the damage as much as possible," said Francis Creighton, a lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association, which spent $4.2 million on lobbying last year. "We're encouraged by the fact that the bill is moving to limit the damage of cram-down rather than make it worse."