Senate Passes Credit Card Reform Bill

The Senate voted on Tuesday to prohibit credit card companies from arbitrarily raising a person's interest rate and charging many of the exorbitant fees that have become customary - and crippling - to cash-strapped consumers.

The overwhelming bipartisan vote of 90-5 was lawmakers' way of telling Americans that they haven't been forgotten amid a recession that has left hundreds of thousands jobless or facing foreclosure.

With the House on track to endorse the measure by week's end, President Barack Obama could see a bill on his desk by the end of the week.

"We've got too many hard-working families in Massachusetts struggling to keep their heads above water, and the last thing they need is to get whacked with unfair credit card fees," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

If Obama signs the bill as expected, the credit card industry in the next year would have to change the way it does business.

Lenders would have to post their credit card agreements on the Internet and let customers pay their bills online or by phone for free. They'd also have to give consumers a chance to spare themselves from over-the-limit fees and give them 45 days notice and an explanation before interest rates are increased.

In a key provision addressing a concept called "universal default," a customer would have to be more than 60 days behind on a payment before seeing his rate on an existing balance increase. Even then, the credit card company would be required to restore the previous, lower rate after six months if the consumer pays the minimum balance on time.

Left out of the bill, thanks to credit card industry lobbying: Two proposals to impose rate caps of 15 percent and 36 percent annual percentage rate on credit cards and other loans. (Read more from CBS News investigative producer Laura Strickler.)

The banking industry has warned lawmakers that the legislation would restrict credit at a time when Americans need it most. They defend their business practices as necessary to protect themselves when providing money to consumers with no collateral and little more than a promise to pay it back.

But members of Congress don't want to face voters in the 2010 election without proof that they are listening to constituents crushed by debt. They say credit card companies have gone too far.

"Any effort to restore confidence in our economy must start not on Wall Street, but in Main Street, and that's what the credit card situation is all about. It's about Main Street," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Obama too has taken up the issue, most recently last week at a town hall meeting in New Mexico. He said that while free-flowing credit is important, the government cannot tolerate profits made by misleading working families.

"This is America and we don't begrudge a company's success when that success is based on honest dealings with consumers," Obama said. "We need reform to restore some sense of balance."

The vote on the credit card bill came as a senior House Democrat tried to assure small, local banks that they weren't the target of financial reform efforts in Congress.

The House Financial Services Committee, led by Rep. Barney Frank, plans to consider in June legislation that would create a government entity that would monitor risk and dissolve large financial institutions that threaten the financial system. The cost of a "systemic risk regulator" and "resolution authority" is expected to be borne by the banking industry.

"While we are considering how best to fund the resolution authority, I believe there is a consensus on the House Financial Services Committee that small banks that have not contributed to the problem should not be assessed for the fix," said Frank, D-Mass., in a statement released Monday.

As lawmakers focus on how to prevent another financial meltdown and rein in credit cards, foreclosure rates and joblessness are on the rise.

According to a report released last week by RealtyTrac Inc., the number of U.S. households faced with losing their homes to foreclosure jumped 32 percent in April compared with the same month last year. Nevada, Florida and California showed the highest rates.

Meanwhile, the jobless rate rose to 8.9 percent in April with predictions that it will probably hit the double digits.