By EDMUND L. ANDREWS
WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 — At least one thing is clear about President Bush’s plan to help people trapped by the mortgage meltdown: it is an industry-led plan, not a government bailout.
Although Mr. Bush unveiled the plan at the White House on Thursday, its terms were set by the mortgage industry and Wall Street firms. The effort is voluntary and it leaves plenty of wiggle room for lenders. Moreover, it would affect only a small number of subprime borrowers.
The plan was the target of criticism from consumer advocates who said its scope was too narrow, and from investment firms, who said it went too far. Others warned that the plan, by letting some stretched homeowners off the hook, could encourage more reckless borrowing in the future.
“The approach announced today is not a silver bullet,” said Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., who hammered out the agreement. “We face a difficult problem for which there is no perfect solution.”
The heart of Mr. Bush’s plan is a cautious attempt to help troubled homeowners by persuading financiers to freeze mortgages at low introductory rates for five years, but without actually forcing the hands of lenders and investors who hold the mortgages.
One of the financial industry’s lead negotiators estimated that at most 20 percent of subprime borrowers whose payments will increase sharply over the next 18 months — 360,000 out of 1.8 million people — would qualify for rapid consideration of a special five-year freeze on interest rates.
The number of people who actually obtain help would be smaller, because each borrower would face tests aimed at weeding out those considered too hopelessly in debt and those who make too much money to justify relief.
In one curious twist, the plan could eliminate many who have good credit scores or managed to improve their credit scores, because the good ratings would be a sign they do not need help.