Rep. Gary G. Miller of Diamond Bar has long been a stalwart Republican, voting the party line 96% of the time last year.
But the conservative lawmaker on Thursday found himself bucking his president and GOP leaders by joining the House Democratic majority in supporting a large-scale federal response to the housing crisis.
Miller, whose most rebellious act in the past may have been showing up at the Capitol sporting a goatee, was among just 39 Republicans -- and the only one from California -- who voted for the bill, which would provide up to $300 billion in federal guarantees for new mortgages to homeowners at risk of foreclosure.
GOP leaders condemned the bill, written by one of the most liberal members of the House, Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.). They called it a bailout of irresponsible lenders and borrowers. The White House threatened a veto.
But Miller, a land developer, called the housing downturn the most serious one he had seen in more than 30 years. “I really wish I could support my Republican colleagues,” he said. “But I’m very concerned about the marketplace.
“A lot of people are losing their homes,” he added. “That not only hurts them, but the neighbors around them because of foreclosure. Their home value drops.”
What support the proposal is getting from the GOP underscores the election-year anxiety on Capitol Hill about the economy, especially high food and gasoline prices, and what may be the worst housing slump since the Depression. And it signals the willingness of Republicans, who, unlike President Bush, face elections this year, to go their own way.
“This crisis calls for drastic action,” said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio, another Republican who voted for the bill. Florida Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, another GOP supporter, said, “I believe in the market working itself out, but that just doesn’t seem to be happening.”
Except for Miller, the Californians split along party lines, with Democrats backing the bill and Republicans opposed.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), whose district has been hard hit by foreclosures but who opposed the bill, said his constituent mail was running “50 to 1: ‘Don’t bail these people out.’ ”
Miller, whose district includes parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange counties, disputes the Republican portrayal of the bill as a bailout. Under the measure, lenders must agree to take a significant loss on a homeowner’s debt in return for a federal guarantee that the reduced loan will be repaid.
“I’m not in any way supporting the concept of bailing people out who made bad decisions,” Miller said. “But things happen in life. . . . There are a lot of innocent people out there.”
Miller said Frank helped win his support by adding a provision that would permanently raise the maximum mortgage the Federal Housing Administration can back to $729,750 from $362,790.
The higher limit, a priority of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s that is supported by virtually the state’s entire 53-member House delegation, would increase the availability of FHA-backed financing in states such as California.
“People around the country are suffering, nowhere more so than in high-cost areas like California,” Miller said.