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March 11, 2011 at 9:54 AM

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GOP continues march to scrap mortgage-relief programs

Posted by Kyung M. Song

WASHINGTON -- After voting to end federal assistance for homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages, the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday nixed a second program for unemployed people facing foreclosures.

The passage of the Emergency Mortgage Relief Program Termination Act puts House Republicans halfway through their goal of scrapping four federal programs intended to help prevent people from losing their homes.

Friday's largely party-line vote of 242-177 came despite objections from Democrats that terminating the relief programs without alternatives would hurt homeowners and the real estate market. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill if it also passes the Senate.

Republicans have criticized the mortgage-modification programs as ineffective, reaching a fraction of the people they were intended to help.

Friday's vote would eliminate $56 million for Washington state designed to provide zero-interest loans of up to $50,000 for out-of-work homeowners who are in default on their mortgages. The program, which was to be administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), would have cost an estimated $840 million nationwide over 10 years.

Four House Democrats from Washington voted against terminating the HUD program (Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma did not vote). Robert Kellar, a spokesman for Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, accused Republicans of killing much-needed help for homeowners without offering a solution.

"These programs need to work better. That should be the conversation," Kellar said.

On Thursday, the House voted to end the year-old FHA Refinance Program, which helped refinance loans for borrowers who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. To qualify, their lenders had to agree to write off at least 10 percent of their outstanding principle balances.

Though $8 billion from the Wall Street bailout fund was set aside for the FHA refinance help, only 245 people had applied.

Rep. Rick Larsen of Lake Stevens was the only Washington Democrat and one of just 18 in the House to side with Republicans on that vote. Larsen said the FHA program demonstrably wasn't working, and argued that the $8 billion would be better spent to pay down the deficit.

But Larsen voted to keep the HUD program, which has yet to start, saying that Congress should give it a chance to help homeowners.

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