A raucous group of roughly 6,000 people crowded the foot of Capitol Hill Tuesday to press for Senate approval of legislation that would ease credit union membership rules.

Amid dozens of flags from their home states, credit union members chanted and waved hundreds of placards in favor of the bill.

The throng roared approval for Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato, who shepherded the bill through his panel in April. The New York Republican vowed the legislation would have overwhelming bipartisan support when it comes to the Senate floor, which could be as early as Friday.

"We are united when it comes to passing the credit union protection act," he said.

Sen. D'Amato said credit unions provide vital access to financial services for the "little guy," especially during economic downturns. "Are you going to a bank that has a credit guy 1,000 miles away or will you go to the neighborhood credit union?" he asked as the crowd broke into a chant-"D'Amato, D'Amato ... "

The reception was only slightly more subdued for the banking panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, and five other senators who spoke to the assembly.

"This is what grassroots democracy is all about," said Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., who noted that he is a "proud member" of Park County Federal Credit Union in his home state.

Officials from credit union trade groups said the rally was intended to persuade the Senate to vote quickly and reject banking industry-supported amendments aimed at removing Community Reinvestment Act requirements on small banks.

"After it is passed, will you tell your senators that we are strong, we will stay strong, and that we will not let them down in the future?" said E.E. "Buck" Levins, chairman of the Credit Union National Association and president of Robins Federal Credit Union in Warner Robins, Ga.

The legislation also got a big lift from President Clinton Tuesday.

"This legislation is imperative to ... ensuring that consumers continue to have the choice of credit unions for financial services," the President wrote in a letter to Kenneth L. Robinson, chief executive officer of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions. "I urge the Senate to pass this bill without weighing it down with extraneous and controversial amendments that would seriously jeopardize this legislation."

Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin also wrote Senate leaders in support of the bill.

The legislation would let an occupation-based credit union serve any related company that employed fewer than 3,000 people. The measure would eviscerate a Feb. 25 Supreme Court decision requiring credit union members to share a single, common bond.

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