Road Map: Paulson’s Push Paves the Way for Housing Bill

Posted July 14, 2008 at 6:45pm

A cadre of Congressional Republicans aren’t sure the sky is falling on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac despite the warnings of the Bush administration and Democrats.

[IMGCAP(1)]Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) hinted Monday that he might use time-consuming procedural options in the Senate to delay final passage of a housing foreclosure bill that is expected to include Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s proposals to prop up the two lending giants.

DeMint said he did not believe Congress should “rush” to rescue the publicly traded companies that have long enjoyed implicit backing by the government and whose stocks took a dangerous nose dive last week amid a lack of investor confidence in their ability to cover losses from the housing crisis.

Meanwhile, House GOP conservatives began seeking signatories Monday for a letter that will ask Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to slow down the bill, which is expected on the House floor by Thursday at the latest.

“We respectfully demand that any legislative efforts to enact this proposal go through regular order, including hearings at the committee level, full debate, and the opportunity to offer amendments to modify the proposal before a vote on final passage,” read the letter being circulated by Republican Study Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas).

Even with GOP opposition, however, it is likely a matter of when, not if, the housing bill passes with Treasury’s plans.

Conservatives suspected that the underlying bill — sponsored by Frank in the House and Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) — was a bailout of the mortgage lending industry. Now that Paulson has asked Congress to add language permitting the government not only to loan more money to Fannie and Freddie but also to buy stock in both companies, opponents say they have no doubt.

“The idea that the Federal Government is going to use taxpayer money to buy shares of these two companies is very concerning, especially when their problems have been known for years. Perhaps they have gotten too big for us to let them fail; that’s not entirely clear yet,” DeMint said in a statement. “Congress should not use this ‘crisis’ to rush the government into the mortgage business.”

The RSC letter warns that Congress could be “potentially exposing taxpayers to more than $5 trillion of new risk,” but House Republicans have few options for slowing the measure in that chamber.

DeMint, on the other hand, already bucked a majority in his own party and forced a two-week delay in passage of the underlying Senate housing bill. He stopped short of saying he would hold up the bill again. The measure aims to strengthen regulation of Fannie and Freddie as well as provide incentives for banks to write down the terms of some home loans in exchange for a repayment guarantee from the Federal Housing Administration.

The bill has been returned to the House, which is likely to strike a number of Senate provisions before sending it back for final passage.

Beyond the RSC, House GOP leaders have a difficult decision to make on whether to call on their membership at large to oppose the measure. But some Republicans hinted that it really doesn’t matter what Republican leaders do given Paulson’s call for Congress to pass the bill by the end of this week.

“If the White House wants a deal, as it appears they do, with Barney Frank in order to make Secretary Paulson’s proposal law, then it’s almost irrelevant what Congressional Republicans want,” one senior House Republican aide said. “It’s no secret that we’ve been against the bill for months. The only thing that remains to be determined is whether GOP leadership actively opposes the bill — and that’s a decision they’ll have to make.”

Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan watchdog group, also came out against the Treasury’s rescue plan Monday, saying it opposes putting taxpayers on the hook for Fannie’s and Freddie’s mortgage liabilities. CAGW also called out lawmakers for being “more interested in their next Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac fundraiser than their fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers.” The firms and their employees have been generous donors to lawmakers’ campaigns over the years.

Despite the noisy objections, House and Senate Democrats appeared to be moving forward with plans to add Treasury’s proposal to the bill. With a veto threat hanging over it and House and Senate Democrats sparring over the implementation date, loan limits for Fannie and Freddie and funding for Community Development Block Grants, the measure still faces surgery before it’s all done.

But Dodd said he hoped to use the Paulson’s sense of urgency to speed passage through both chambers.

“The earlier we can do this, the better,” Dodd told reporters Monday. He added that he hoped the House could deal with the measure before Thursday so the Senate could take it up this week.

Dodd gently urged Frank and other House Democrats to “understand the tolerance levels of the Senate” and not send back anything that would “be met with a hostile reaction.” But aides in both parties said the imperative to make sure that the two entities — which own or guarantee more than half of all mortgages — do not fail will likely soften positions in both chambers.

“It will help people … to have a meeting of the minds,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Even so, Democrats on both sides of the Capitol said they likely would not seek to parlay their new leverage with the Bush administration into expanding the scope of the bill or adding items previously objectionable to the White House.

“Anything we do will be susceptible to [the argument that] ‘They’re playing politics with this incredibly dicey economic issue,’” another Senate Democratic aide said.

Republicans and Democrats said there’s greater political peril for GOP opponents of the bill, particularly those in the Senate who prevented the measure from passing easily even though it was supported by a filibuster-proof majority.

“I don’t want these new authorizations being sought by the administration to suffer the same fate,” Dodd said.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.