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Senate clears housing relief bill

It approves a $15 billion bipartisan package Thursday after several contentious measures are dropped.

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After weeks of gridlock – and a presidential veto threat – the Senate passed a bipartisan housing package Thursday that Democratic leaders say President Bush will sign.

The $15 billion Senate package includes tax breaks for home builders and homeowners, $100 million to boost mortgage counseling for families, and $4 billion in block grants for communities to purchase and rehabilitate foreclosed properties.

It's one of several measures now on a fast track on Capitol Hill to show voters that Congress is capable of responding to a deepening housing crisis now affecting financial markets across the world.

To get to a yes, Democrats dropped features that would have delivered more relief directly to families facing foreclosure, such as giving bankruptcy judges authority to restructure primary home mortgages.

"There is a tolerance level for what the Senate will do. I got as close as I could get," said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, who chairs the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. He and the senior Republican on the panel, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, worked out a bipartisan agreement, then sustained it on the floor of the Senate.

Meanwhile, House Democrats are moving their own versions of housing reform on parallel tracks. On Wednesday, the Ways and Means Committee voted out a $11.1 billion tax bill that targets help for low-income renters and new homebuyers.

But the most ambitious effort is unfolding in the House Financial Services Committee, where Chairman Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts is working up a comprehensive housing reform. He is collaborating with both Senator Dodd and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and consulting widely with industry and consumer groups, in the run-up to a committee markup expected in two weeks.

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