Credit card issuers, banks and even home builders are applauding the Senate's passage of a bankruptcy bill that would make it much more difficult for Americans devastated by illness, divorce or job loss to wipe out their debts. The House is poised to pass the measure, probably in early April, after the Easter recess.
Spurred on by support from such heavy financial backers as MBNA, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Capital One Financial, the Senate beat back every amendment that would have cut any slack to members of the armed forces, those with serious medical problems and those working as unpaid caregivers to seriously ill or disabled family members
Senators even refused to show any sympathy to victims of identity theft.
The Senate has more sympathy for the wealthy, however. When Democrats tried to restrict the use of state laws that allow wealthy individuals to shelter their portfolios from creditors in several states, Republicans rejected it out of hand.
Not long ago, Democrats could be counted on to oppose turning the screws on low-income and middle-class Americans. In 2000, Congress passed a similar bill but then-President Clinton vetoed it.
This time around, things are different. Eighteen Democrats -- including both Democratic Senators from Delaware, MBNA's home state -- joined Republicans in voting for the measure. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also voted with the Republicans.
Many Democrats in the House are also eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the financial sector. The New Democrat Coalition endorsed bankruptcy reform in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), urging that he bring the bill swiftly to the House floor.
"We believe that responsible bankruptcy reform embodies the New Democrat principles of personal responsibility, while at the same time adding important new consumer protections such as requiring enhanced credit card disclosure information and encouraging participation in consumer credit counseling," wrote coalition Chairwoman Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) and others.
With a straight face, the bill's supporters claim it will make it easier for low-income consumers to get loans.
"By reforming the system with this common-sense approach, more Americans -- especially lower-income Americans -- will have greater access to credit," President Bush said in a statement.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was among the outspoken opponents of the bill, which he said "sacrifices the hopes and dreams of average Americans to the rampant greed of the credit card industry."
"It turns the United States Senate into a collection agency for the credit card companies reaching the long arm of the law into the pocketbooks of average Americans who have reached the end of their economic rope," Kennedy said. "This legislation breaks the bond that unites America, the bond that makes our country strong. It says the concerns of low and middle income families don't matter. They no longer have a voice in the United States Senate. What matters is the special interests."
Proponents say the bill is needed to curb the five- fold increase in personal bankruptcy filings from less than 300,000 in 1980 to almost 1.6 million in 2003. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch said that the number of personal bankruptcy petitions filed each year exceeds the 10-year total during the Depression of the 1930s.
Bankruptcies cost "law-abiding, bill-paying citizens" an extra $400 a year because of people who stiff banks, credit-card companies and stores by erasing their debt, he said.