- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Senate yesterday passed one of the most dramatic overhauls of the nation’s bankruptcy laws in history, signaling the end of an eight-year battle and a sea change in the political landscape.

If signed into law, which is almost assured since passing the Senate last night on a 74-25 vote, it will become this year’s second major legal reform demanded by President Bush and promised by Republicans for years.

The bill will make it harder for people to walk away from debts, especially targeting deadbeat dads, compulsive gamblers and habitual frenzy shoppers.

“If people have the ability to repay some of their debt, should they not have to repay some of their debt?” asked Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who first introduced such a measure eight years ago to rein in frivolous bankruptcy filings.

“It seems to me to be fair to those people to whom they pay their debt. We preserve the principle of a fresh start, but we also establish a principle that if one has the ability to repay some of their debt, they are not going to get off scot-free,” he said.

Last month, Republicans in both chambers pushed through an overhaul of the nation’s class-action lawsuit rules. Still to come are bills on medical malpractice claims and the huge industry of asbestos lawsuits.

Opponents of the bankruptcy bill, who are all Democrats, portrayed the measure as a sop to corporate interests at the expense of the poor and sick.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said Americans have the lowest rate of savings in 40 years.

“And what does this administration want to do?” he asked. “They give Social Security to Wall Street. They took care of major companies with the class-action bill just a week ago, and now, they are ready to take care of the credit-card companies.”

Of the Senate’s 44 Democrats, 18 joined the chamber’s lone independent in voting with Republicans for the bill. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, was with her husband for heart surgery and was the only member not to vote.

The bill is expected to pass easily in the House, and Mr. Bush has said he will sign it.

“I applaud the strong bipartisan vote in the Senate to curb abuses of the bankruptcy system,” Mr. Bush said last night. “By reforming the system with this common-sense approach, more Americans — especially lower-income Americans — will have greater access to credit.”

Although the bill had support from both sides of the aisle, it reflects the growing Republican strength in Washington. For eight years, the bill seesawed between chambers with Republicans never quite able to get it through.

This Congress, Republicans relegated Democrats into playing a bit role. Of 52 amendments offered by Democrats to soften the bill, only five were approved. Still, Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, voted in favor of the bill.

Democrats said the bill signified the grip that corporate interests have on Republicans.

The bill falls “well short of balancing the interests of creditors with those of hard-working American families who need the opportunity to resolve overwhelming financial burdens,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. “The priorities of ordinary Americans have been overridden to accommodate the priorities of powerful special interests.”

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said the tort reform measures are an important part of the Republican promises to remake Washington politics and the national culture.

“We need the trial bar in this country, because they hold us accountable,” he said. “But we don’t need it to become this huge business that is based on emotion and not fact.”

He also said the measure will help end an era of “victimization,” in which people are not expected to take responsibility for their actions.

“Americans are spoiled,” he said outside the Senate chamber before the historic vote. “They want everything in life to be perfect. Well, you know what? Life isn’t perfect.”

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