Congress ignored a last-minute plea by President Clinton to shore up the Savings Association Insurance Fund in the 1996 budget bill that was expected to be approved Thursday.

That's a big victory for banks, but industry lobbyists have little time to relax. Now that the President has taken an active role in pushing for the plan, its chances of passing have increased.

"With the enactment of this legislation, we could all take pride in achieving a resolution of the last remaining consequences of the thrift industry's problems of the 1980s," the President wrote in a letter Wednesday to House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey. He urged "immediate congressional action."

The President's letter was too late to salvage efforts to pass the thrift fund fix this week, but lawmakers are already working on the 1997 budget and the administration may apply heavy pressure to include the plan there.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Ricki Helfer vowed to continue fighting.

"We hope Congress will address the situation quickly," she said. "The legislation is the right thing for everyone who has money on deposit in an insured financial institution."

Even industry trade group leaders see the writing on the wall.

"The banking industry has to realize that it's at the presidential level," said Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers of America Association. "Banking has a problem that's not going to go away."

Still, the industry has some breathing room because few "must-pass" pieces of legislation are available as a vehicle for the bailout plan.

The best shot for passing the thrift fund fix was crushed Tuesday when the plan was stripped from a one-day spending bill by the House Rules Committee. (The one-day measure was necessary to keep the government funded while lawmakers wrapped up the broader bill that was to be passed Thursday.)

House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Armey backed attaching the savings association fund rescue to the one-day measure, but Rules Committee members from both parties balked because of heavy pressure from bank lobbyists.

Bankers oppose the plan because it would force them to pick up $600 million in annual interest payments on Financing Corp. bonds used to fund the first thrift industry rescue in the late 1980s. The plan also forces thrifts to pay a one-time special assessment to capitalize the insurance fund.

But if House leaders and the administration are determined to enact the fix, the banking industry will not be able to fight off the plan forever, said Richard Hohlt, a lobbyist supporting the bailout.

"When you think of all that firepower, it would be absolutely phenomenal if there is no action," he said.

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