WASHINGTON - If the banking industry could pick one ally to help press it case in Congress, it should probably be community activists.

Advocates for America's little guys - the single mother trying to scrape together a down payment for the first home, the out-of-work machinists who can't make his debt payments - are loved by lawmakers.

But until now, bankers have not been able to fuse a union with community groups that is convincing on Capital Hill.

Common Cause

Things may be changing. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now said last week that it will help big banks work for one of their most cherished objectives - an interstate branching law. But the big community group wants something in return.

"We're willing to consider banks branching into new states if they are willing to branch into our neighborhoods," Deepak Bhargava, Acorn's legislative director, said in a an interview last week. "We can go back through this ritual of fighting each other tooth and nail, or we can try to work out an agreement."

Mr. Bhargava laid out Acorn's interstate plan to executives from 41 banks two weeks ago.

Lobbying at Citicorp

They were attending a convention held by the community group in New York City to discuss community reinvestment - a meeting timed to coincide with the Democratic convention.

Acorn had asked banks attending the meeting to sign agreements pledging to develop national inner-city lending plans. Five big New York City-based banks refused to negotiate individually.

In apparent retaliation, Acorn organized a march to Citicorp's headquarters. Hundreds of community advocates surged into the lobby, causing Citicorp to briefly close its branch in the building. The Acorn supporters left with a pledge from a Citibank official to negotiate further.

Mr. Bhargava said the group has not yet decided how to press the issue with other money-center institutions.

In return for its support of interstate branching, Acorn has two demands, according to Mr. Bhargava:

* Any legislation it supports would bar banks with a pattern of closing officers in low-income areas from branching out of state.

* Any bank that takes advantage of the interstate legislation must commit to opening outposts in underserved area of the new market.

Plan Greeted with Silence

How did bankers react to the plan outlined by Mr. Bhargava?

"Dead silence," he said.

A representative of Nations-Bank, the leading advocate of interstate branching, attended the meeting. A spokeswoman for the company would not comment on the Acorn offer directly.

"If we can get some large consumer groups who are interested in interstate branching," she said, "that is wonderful."

The one "natural point of agreement" among bankers and activists, Mr. Bhargava said, is that the government should do more to encourage lending to poor areas through guarantees and other programs.

Task Force Set Up

More than a dozen bankers signed up for a task force that Acorn is organizing to develop ways to help low-income home-buyers pay settlement costs and down payments. On the agenda is government support.

"The government has abandoned its role in providing affordable, low-income housing," Mr. Bhargava said. "The government has to be a partner at the table with banks and community groups."

Mark Willis, president of Chase Manhattan Bank's Community Development Corp., agreed.

"Banks are willing to lend, but it has to be done on a sound business basis, and for that to happen to government has to kick in some dollars," he said.

John Salgado, vice president and community development officer at First Interstate Bank of Arizona in Phoenix, added: "The only way we're going to make a change is to collaborate."

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