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Obama touts housing proposals; hits Congress, Romney indirectly

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Taking Congress and, indirectly, Mitt Romney to task for what he called a lax attitude towards the housing market, President Obama today announced a new set of proposals intended to help homeowners refinance their mortgages.

"What's at stake is more than just statistics. It's personal," Obama told an audience at a community center in Falls Church, Virginia. "This housing crisis struck right at the heart of what it means to be middle class in America."

But significant parts of the plan need the approval of members of Congress, which President Obama, taking a dig at the body's inaction, urged them to give.

"We're going to need Congress to act," Obama said, repeating the phrase twice for dramatic effect as scattered chuckles arose from the crowd at a community center in Falls Church, Virginia.

"I hear some murmuring in the audience here," Obama said, grinning at the crowd. "We need them to act," he repeated.

But Congress has previously rejected, during budget negotiations, one of the most significant parts of the plan: a tax on banks that would pay for a special fund through which some homeowners could refinance their mortgages.

That program would allow qualified homeowners with privately held mortgages (not through the government-subsidized programs at Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac) to refinance their loans through the new fund and would be administered by the Federal Housing Authority.

Obama said measures like this were specific actions the government could take to help shore up the housing market, taking a subtle jab at Mitt Romney who in October said in an interview that the industry should be allowed to "run its course and hit the bottom."

"It is wrong for anybody to suggest that the only option for struggling, responsible homeowners is to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom," Obama said.

While Obama's speech was mostly a broad outline of the proposal, he gave a nod to the financial conditions in two of the swing states crucial to his re-election campaign: Virginia, where his speech occurred; and Nevada, coincidentally the site of the next Republican presidential contest.

"Here in Falls Church, home values have fallen by about a quarter from their peak," Obama said. "In places like Las Vegas, more than half of all homeowners are underwater."

Key campaign states were also mentioned during today's White House briefing, when Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan took questions from reporters.

"Put yourself in the shoes of a family that the president described this morning," Donovan said when asked whether it was more expedient to simply let the market bottom out, as Romney has proposed.

"You've done everything right' you've paid your mortgage -- whether you're in Florida or Nevada, California, or right there in Falls Church, Virginia," he said. "We should not sit on our hands when we know we can help those families to be able to refinance."

But Donovan demurred when asked how the parts of the program that need Congressional approval -- including the bank tax, which failed previously -- would survive another vote.

"I'm the housing secretary," Donovan said. "I'm going to leave the politics and the discussions about what's possible in Congress on that to others."