WASHINGTON — Retail officials have written off bankruptcy reform legislation passing Congress this year, after conservative House Republicans — usually friends to business — last week derailed the long sought-after bill in order to remain faithful to antiabortion causes.

Lobbyists for the National Retail Federation Friday were still stunned by the dizzying chain of events that saw their long-pursued legislation shelved, despite eventual House passage.

"It was a good bill for the economy and the retail industry and it really was something that had to be addressed," said Steve Pfister, NRF’s senior vice president for government relations. "Unless there is a miracle, this thing is done for the 107th Congress."

A spokeswoman for Sears said, "We’re disappointed. The legislation proposed was balanced and fair both to consumers and to companies who lend those consumers money."

Passage of the bill, designed to make it more difficult to erase debts entirely in bankruptcy court, has been a top retail priority during three attempts over six years to make it law. Retail executives estimate the industry loses more than $1 billion a year in unpaid debt discharged in bankruptcy.

Last week, retailers were enthused to hear they might have a shot at getting a House-Senate compromise bankruptcy reform bill through Congress in the waning days of its lame duck session. The House scheduled a Thursday afternoon vote and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) said he’d make room on the Senate’s agenda for the bill this week, before adjourning for the year. Senate passage was expected.

However, the bill’s prospects quickly dimmed as a cadre of conservative House Republicans maneuvered to kill the bill on a procedural vote. Their reason: A provision intended to bar the discharge of debts incurred by perpetrators of abortion clinic violence.

Adding to the drama, early Friday, before adjourning for the year, House lawmakers then passed the bill minus the offending abortion clinic provision. But House passage didn’t improve bankruptcy reform’s chances because it effectively killed its consideration in the Senate. The changed bill would be subject to lengthy Senate debate and amendments, a weeks-long process for which there’s no time left in this year’s congressional schedule.Mallory Duncan, NRF’s general counsel, called the abortion issue a "red herring" because it essentially restated existing law that disallows discharging of any debt arising from "violent, willful and intentional" acts.

Even if there was time, the abortion-clinic violence amendment’s author, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), would be expected to protest the provision’s exclusion in any final bill. That measure would then face similar House opposition.

Daschle said Friday: "We had a compromise that was the product of virtually years of work. I am very disappointed that we aren’t going to see bankruptcy completed this year and it’s another indication of how the far right controls the House Republican caucus."

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