by Alan Fram
The House voted Friday to kill mortgage assistance for homeowners who have lost their jobs or become ill, as the two parties battled over how to balance frugality and compassion at a time of enormous budget deficits.
The mostly party-line 242-177 vote by the Republican-run House to abolish the Emergency Mortgage Relief Program may be as far as the legislation gets. The White House has threatened to veto the measure, and its prospects are shaky in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Even so, the fight over the bill -- and three others like it that the GOP is trying to push through Congress -- is giving each party an opportunity to highlight its political priorities. Though more eyes are focused on the spending and budget battle, the lower-profile fight over housing aid is letting Republicans stress their focus on smaller government and private job creation, while Democrats underscore the federal role of helping struggling homeowners at a time of high joblessness and an ailing housing market.
On Friday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., asked what he could tell constituents when he encounters them at church about why Congress was trying to kill housing assistance.
"I'm tired of seeing my fellow citizens coming in, your neighbors and my neighbors, they may look like your mother and my mother, they may look like your son and my son, tears running down their faces, simply wanting a break," said Cummings, whose district has his state's highest percentage of black residents.
"When I go to church on Sunday, I'm going to be very glad in my heart, in my head, that I didn't commit an act of fiscal child abuse on my children or anybody else's children or grandchildren" by letting the national debt get even bigger, said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
The $1 billion emergency program was created by last year's financial overhaul law. It is designed to help up to 30,000 families by offering short-term, forgivable federal loans, but no loans have been made yet.
Freshman Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., said that Democrats "want you to believe that we don't have a heart" but said Republicans have a different motivation.
"Americans understand we can't continue to live in this irresponsible way, giving away borrowed money, program after program, knowing that it's going down a rat hole," he said.
"The American citizens are not rats," countered Rep. Maxine Waters, and money the government is spending "through good public policy is not money that is going down a rat hole."
The House approved a similar GOP bill on Thursday abolishing a program arranging refinancing for people whose homes are worth less than they originally paid for them. It too faces a White House veto threat.
Next week the House plans to debate two other measures killing a pair of federal programs.
One is President Barack Obama's flagship program for preventing foreclosures. The other is an initiative that gives money to state and local governments to buy and revamp abandoned properties.