WASHINGTON (AP) -- A top housing official said Thursday that the Bush administration "strongly opposes" Democrats' housing rescue package, calling it a bailout that would expose taxpayers to excessive risk.
Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Roy A. Bernardi also indicated that President Bush would veto a bill sending $15 billion to states for the purchase and rehabilitation of foreclosed properties.
The comments, in separate letters to lawmakers, were the most forceful rejection yet by the Bush administration of Democrats' housing aid plans. And they were the clearest indication to date that the White House intends to put up a vigorous fight against a bill to let the Federal Housing Administration take on as much as $300 billion in new mortgages for financially strapped homeowners.
They came as the House Financial Services Committee began work on the bill by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the panel chairman. It would substantially relax the FHA's standards to reach struggling borrowers who otherwise would be considered ineligible for a government-backed mortgage.
Homeowners would have to show they could make payments on a refinanced mortgage, and lenders would have to agree to take hefty losses on the existing loans.
"We're not talking here about murderers or muggers or arsonists. We're talking about people whose misdeeds were to try too hard to find housing for their family," Frank said. "What we hope to do today is to diminish the cascade of foreclosures."
The Bush administration has previously questioned the scope and structure of the plan, although it backs the central concept: adjusting FHA's rules so more homeowners can refinance into government-backed loans.
An administration program, called FHASecure, made similar changes, but it is limited to borrowers who have good credit and histories of making their payments on time. It also doesn't require lenders to accept losses on existing mortgages.
Doing so, Bernardi wrote, would "significantly limit lender participation."
Frank has been working to draw Republican support for his plan, which he says has a good chance of becoming law this year.
But first, Democrats will have to deal with strong GOP philosophical objections to any measure that inserts the government into the housing maelstrom - especially one that could help people who are victims of their own irresponsible decisions.
"It will unfairly benefit a few homeowners and many investors and speculators at the expense of millions of careful borrowers and renters," said Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala. "The message that we risk sending to financial institutions and individuals is that when they willingly take on excessive and ill-advised risk, the government will ride to their rescue."
The panel rejected, 34-23, a Republican alternative that included steps to protect consumers from fraudulent or unscrupulous lending practices, an overhaul of the FHA, and stiffer regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage guarantors and financiers. Many of its elements have already passed the House by wide bipartisan margins and are stalled in the Senate.
Frank called the measure "a pale imitation" of what the House has already done to head off a deeper housing crisis.
The committee made a number of minor changes to Frank's bill, which is to come to a final panel vote next week.
The most significant change, offered by Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill., beefed up to 50 percent the share of profits homeowners would have to share with the FHA if they refinanced again or sold their property.
House leaders plan votes the week of May 5 on a broad housing package including Frank's FHA plan and the measure - approved by the committee Wednesday - to send loans and grants to states for buying and fixing up foreclosed properties.
Bernardi called the $15 billion fund "a costly bailout for lenders and speculators" that could lead to even more foreclosures. He noted that Bush's advisers had recommended he veto a similar bill earlier this year.