(WOMENSENEWS)--While all eyes remain trained on the grand presidential saga, a great opportunity opened for lobbyists to push through an anti-consumer, anti-women bill--and for senators to vote for the bill without being called to account by their constituents. That is precisely what happened late last week when the Senate passed the bankruptcy bill and hurried it over to the President for his signature.
One amendment provides a thumbnail history of this bill. When the Senate considered the bankruptcy bill last summer, many were dismayed by its pro-business, anti-family aspects, deeming it "a gift to bankers and other special interests."
To provide some balance, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) sponsored an amendment to prohibit those who have violated the laws on abortion clinic violence from discharging those debts in bankruptcy. The national media focused on the story. Then-candidate Al Gore left the campaign trail to fly to Washington to be present to break a possible tie on the amendment. Several Republicans, fearing that the vice president would have a useful campaign issue, supported the amendment as well.
The public position of the Senate was that no bankruptcy reform could pass without a provision designed to shut down access to the bankruptcy courts for abortion clinic protestors who used violence to supplement their protests. The amendment passed by a wide margin.
Bankruptcy Bill Shields Violent Anti-Abortion Protesters
Fast-forward to this lame-duck Congress, with no pressing business except finishing a budget. While everyone looked toward Florida, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) reintroduced the bankruptcy bill that had already passed the House, rounded up a cloture vote to cut off debate and steered the bill through the Senate by a vote of 70-28.
Every Republican and 17 Democrats voted for the bill. Of the nine women senators, all four Republicans--Susan Collins of Maine, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Olympia Snowe of Maine--supported the bankruptcy bill.
Four Democrats--Californians Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Patty Murray of Washington--opposed it, and one Democrat, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, did not vote.
Where was the much-promised protection against abuse by those who engage in abortion violence? It was gone, disappeared without a trace.
President Clinton has vowed repeatedly that he will veto the bill. He has strongly opposed any bankruptcy legislation without increased protection for the victims of abortion clinic violence. He objects to the bill on a number of other grounds as well, noting that it would disadvantage women who are trying to collect child support by putting them in direct competition with banks, credit card companies and other large, commercial lenders.
The group of debtors who would be hit hardest by this bill are households headed by women, particularly those who are struggling to right themselves financially following a divorce, Clinton has said.
It is fitting that President Clinton's last legislative act may be to stand up once more on behalf of women--women who are hurt by abortion clinic protestors, women who are trying to collect alimony and child support, women who are trying to rear children alone. President Clinton reminds everyone how much women need a friend in the White House.
Congress May Override Veto, Rewarding Big Donors, Banks
But President Clinton is facing an override of his veto. Credit industry support for this bill is intense and lobbying had already reached the $40 million mark this summer. If all 70 senators who originally voted for the bill continue to support it, it will become law over the President's veto.
The 106th Congress should have finished its business and adjourned months ago. Now a lame duck Congress, with people who have lost the mandate to govern, may make its last act a veto override. With that single act, they can repay campaign contributions and shore up their support from the banks, while they escape any public attention for what their acts will do to the victims of abortion clinic violence or for women who are struggling to raise a family.
Throughout these debates, 31 women's groups across a wide political spectrum have opposed this bill. Not a single women's organization has supported it. These groups have repeatedly explained that the bill is harsh in its treatment of all struggling families, but that the blow would be disproportionately concentrated on families headed by women.
On Dec. 19, the President will make good on his veto promise. Senate Leader Lott has said he will keep Congress in session so that they can override his veto. If he does, a drama that most people will never notice, but that will directly affect more than a million families every year, will play out in Washington--with women's interests, once again, left on the sidelines.
Elizabeth Warren is the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and co-author of "The Fragile Middle Class" (Yale Press, 2000), former advisor to the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, authorized by Congress to recommend reform of bankruptcy laws, and author of the commission's 1997 report.