Dems Push for Rapid Action on Housing Refinance Bill in Short Session

Two Democratic senators say “time’s a-wasting” to push through a housing refinance bill in the short amount of time Congress is back before breaking for the campaign recess — and they’re even willing to stay late or have Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) bypass the Banking Committee to get it done.

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) today introduced the latest incarnation of the Responsible Homeowners Refinancing Act of 2012, which is amended from the version Menendez introduced in May to reflect conversations and concessions with stakeholders across the mortgage process.

While the May bill had hearings in the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, supporters face a stringent timeline to try to get this legislation through in the 112th Congress.

“We do need to act now because we have historic low rates here,” Boxer told reporters today on a conference call. “We can’t wait.”

“This bill is a win-win-win,” she said. “Homeowners will have more money in their pockets, Fannie and Freddie will see fewer foreclosures, and the housing market and economy will be strengthened.”

The legislation, which doesn’t include other co-sponsors yet, applies to 13.5 million “responsible borrowers” in loans guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who could get a lower interest rate by refinancing today. For borrowers making their payments on time, the bill would eliminate barriers for other lenders to compete for the loan, ensure all GSE borrowers can access the refi regardless of the equity in their home, eliminate up-front refinance and appraisal fees for borrowers, and eliminates employment and income verification requirements for those current on their loans.

Supporters include the Mortgage Bankers Association, National Association of Realtors, National Association of Home Builders and the Center for Responsible Lending.

“Virtually no one opposes the bill on its merits,” Menendez told reporters on the call.

“I’ve received thousands of messages from hardworking homeowners back home, including a cancer survivor named Linda who said trying to refinance her mortgage is harder than fighting cancer,” he said. “Passing this bill will get rid of the red tape that leaves millions of borrowers like Linda trapped in higher-interest loans, put money back into the pockets of middle-class families and strengthen our economy. I’m asking Republicans to join us in putting families first.”

Menendez’s May bill had no Republican co-sponsors. He said today that he has had conversations with “several Republican colleagues who have shown an interest” in the legislation, and “we will continue to court them.”

But if the bill gets held up, the senators are prepared to enlist Reid’s help to push it to a vote within the month — especially amid speculation that the Senate, just returned from the five-week summer break, could recess again for campaigning along with the House at the end of next week.

“I’m hopeful that we will get an opportunity to act on the bill very quickly,” Menendez said, adding that the challenge is avoiding “extraneous amendments” being debated in committee.

“Let’s not have poison pills,” he said. “If you want to have a debate about the role of Fannie and Freddie, that’s for another day. If reasonable minds prevail and we could just have pertinent amendments, then I would certainly welcome a committee process.”

But, the New Jersey Democrat opined, “time’s a-wasting.”

“We don’t know what the future holds,” Boxer said. “We can’t afford to waste a lot of time. Everyone knows we’re here for a few weeks at most.”

Stressing that “the consensus on this bill is unbelievable,” Boxer said she was going to try to track down Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) on the floor today to talk about getting his support.

But if the bill can’t move fast enough, “I’m for staying and whatever it takes to get it done,” Menendez said.

Boxer said Reid is already on board with the possibility of fast-tracking the bill past committee. “He’s very much open to it because he understands what we understand,” she said.

“Knowing my Republican friends as I do, they say they support competition, they should be very happy with this bill,” she said.

Menendez said it could reasonably move out of committee within a day, but “if that’s not possible then other options exist.”

Stoking the same fervor to get their bill through the Republican-controlled House in such a short amount of time would be a different story, though. Menendez said he expects companion legislation to be introduced and pushed by a “whole host of interested members” who now have a final Senate version in their hands.

Back at a May hearing on the original Menendez-Boxer bill, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) expressed concerns about “rumors that some of these bills may go straight to the floor and not come through the committee.”

“I’m just pleading with you today to please not let a bill that, candidly, could with some changes receive some bipartisan support, go to the floor and turn into something that’s certainly not that,” Corker said.

Boxer said the industry groups and supporters behind the latest revision of the bill are “Republican-base people and I think that’s critical.”

The key item on the congressional agenda for the short time members are in Washington will be passing a continuing resolution to keep the government funded past the end of this month and avert an embarrassing pre-election government shutdown.

Both sides already hashed-out the details of the six-month deal before the August break. The House is expected to pass the short-term CR later this week, and the Senate would then take up the measure next week.