By Marcy Gordon

After racing through the House, legislation that would make it tougher for people to sweep away debts in bankruptcy court has been slowed in the Senate by a mountain of proposed amendments.

The bipartisan measure to overhaul the bankruptcy laws overwhelmingly passed the House last week and was expected to be signed by President Bush if it reaches his desk.

But it was slow for going for the bill Thursday in the Senate, where Democrats proposed a series of changes aimed at tempering the legislation and met defeat each time.

About 100 amendments have been proposed by lawmakers of both parties, prompting Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to chide their colleagues during the debate.

The legislation was vetoed in December by then-President Clinton, who contended it would hurt ordinary people and working families that fall on hard times. It has been pushed by the banking, credit card and retail credit industries, while consumer groups and unions have opposed it.

Senators voted 50-49 Thursday to reject a provision that would have prevented high-cost home lenders that violated truth-in-lending laws from staking a claim to a debtor's assets in bankruptcy court.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the amendment's author, said it was targeted at home lenders that exploit "some of the most vulnerable people in America," notably minorities and the elderly, by charging excessive interest rates for people who may have poor credit histories and imposing punitive terms on mortgages. The provision would have applied to lenders that, for example, imposed fees, such as prepayment penalties, that violate truth-in-lending rules for high-cost home loans.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said before the vote that the provision "would deny access to the American dream for millions of people" seeking home mortgages.

Also rebuffed, in a 55-41 vote, was a proposal by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to exempt small businesses from the requirements of the bankruptcy bill.

The Democrats' first attempt failed Wednesday when the Senate voted not to allow people seeking bankruptcy protection because of disastrous medical bills to have a better chance of erasing their debts in court than consumers filing for other reasons.

The vote was 65-34 to reject the exemption for medical debts, which was proposed by Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, one of the Senate's most liberal Democrats and a leading opponent of the bankruptcy legislation.

In all the votes, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill, voted "present" to avoid a potential conflict of interest because his family owns a bank.

Personal bankruptcies in this country reached a record 1.4 million in 1998, despite the strong economy, up more than 300 percent since 1980. But the rate declined to about 1.3 million in 1999 and 1.2 million last year, according to government figures.