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Dems Push Bush To Aid Homeowners In Crisis

Democrats urged President Bush on Friday to endorse their housing assistance proposal, which would let bankruptcy judges lower payments for homeowners staring at foreclosure.

Mr. Bush touted his less-direct approach to struggling homeowners who he said sometimes need "just a little help."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Bush should lean on congressional Republicans to allow votes on the Democratic measure.

"The administration refuses to step up to the plate and do what's needed," Schumer, chairman of the congressional Joint Economic Committee, told reporters in a conference call. "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."

His comments came as the president paid a quick visit to a nonprofit debt counseling center in Freehold, N.J. to refute exactly that sort of criticism and argue his administration has acted effectively.

The administration's moves over the past about six months include expanding the Federal Housing Administration's ability to offer refinancing to homeowners with good credit, allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy up more home loans, and brokering help for struggling homeowners through a private-sector mortgage industry group. That group has agreed to offer a five-year rate freeze for people who have not missed payments or a 30-day foreclosure pause for those who fall behind.

President Bush again urged people in trouble to call the group, which connects homeowners with centers like Novadebt, the one Bush visited. But as when he first announced the hotline in December, the president got the number wrong - twice. He later returned to the podium, because he said "I got to get this right," and gave the correct number: 1-888-995-HOPE.

"There are some homeowners who have made responsible buying decisions and who could keep their homes with just a little help," he said.

The president has come out strongly against the Democrats' housing package, warning that an overzealous governmental response to the nation's housing woes could hurt the economy's ability to recover long-term. Bush did not again explicitly reject the Democratic ideas on Friday, but implied that Washington should act only carefully.

"We have a role to play at the government level, and that is to help lenders and borrowers work together to avoid foreclosure," he said. "The housing market problems are complicated and there's no easy solutions. But ... we will help responsible homeowners weather a difficult period."

Mr. Bush wants Congress to approve a broad mortgage reform package that would lower the down-payment requirements for FHA-insured loans and expand the FHA's use of risk-based premium pricing.

Democrats 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 and provide $200 million in counseling to distressed borrowers.

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."

Republicans, though, are deeply opposed to the bankruptcy provision, which they say would raise mortgage interest rates.

Instead, they're pushing more modest steps that enjoy at least some degree of bipartisan support. They include $15,000 tax credits for the purchase of homes in or near foreclosure, letting states issue $10 billion in tax-exempt bonds to refinance subprime loans, strengthening loan disclosure rules, and allowing businesses suffering losses to reclaim previously paid taxes.

"What the economy doesn't need is to raise the price of homeownership by enacting the cram-down provision contained in the Democrat proposal," said Don Stewart, McConnell's spokesman.

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 say, though, that the government should be as willing to assist individual homeowners as it was to help investment banks.

"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.

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