WASHINGTON -- Are there any new supporters of tax-exempt financing on the House Ways and Means Committee?

That's been an open question since January, when Congress returned to find that a huge number of House members had retired or failed to win re-election. The Ways and Means panel alone lost 13 members, including former Rep. Beryl Anthony, D-Ark., the most vocal proponent of municipal finance in Congress.

Anthony left behind quite a few strong backers of tax-exempts. Most notable are Rep. Bill Coyne, D-Pa., who pushed successfully for a permanent extension of the tax exemption for small-issue industrial development bonds; Rep. Barbara Kennelly, D-Conn., the chief sponsor of legislation passed to make mortgage revenue bonds permanent; and Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif., who is urging his colleagues to lift the $150 million limit on non-hospital 501(c)(3) bonds.

But if one of them were to push the committee to loosen bond curbs, how many of the 13 new panel members would stand behind them? That question has been difficult to answer all year, because committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., hasn't given the panel an opportunity to vote on any such measure. The only major tax-related bills approved by Ways and Means have been President Clinton's tax package and a bill to make technical corrections in that measure.

Now, finally, if you read a few tea leaves, it's possible to make an educated guess about how much support there is among new panel members for tax-exempt bonds.

In February and again this month, committee members mounted letter-writing campaigns urging support for tax-exempt bond initiatives. The February group, led by Coyne, called on Clinton to offer proposals to ease bond curbs. Last week, Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and 22 others on the 38-member panel sent a letter to chairman Rostenkowski urging his continued backing for bond simplification measures.

Of the 13 who signed the first letter, seven were new members of the committee. Six of the seven also signed Cardin's letter. The six representatives are: Richard E. Neal, D-Mass.; Gerald R. Kleczka, D-Wis.; William J. Jefferson, D-La.; L. F. Payne, D-Va.; Bill K. Brewster, D-Okla.; and Michael J. Kopetski, D-Ore.

In addition, the Cardin letter bore the signatures of a few more new committee members who did not sign the February letter: John Lewis, D-Ga.; Jim McCrery, R-La.; Rick Santorum, R-Pa.; Peter Hoagland, D-Neb.; and Amo Houghton, R-N.Y.

So, what does it really mean to sign a letter or two? Not as much as voting for a bond measure or introducing legislation to ease bond curbs. But as one municipal lobbyist said last week, it's much more than the municipal bond community could expect from tax committee members just a few years ago. The grass roots lobbying campaign that the community began in the late 1980s may be beginning to produce some results.

Despite the number of new committee members, it's important to keep in mind that they are the lowest in seniority on the panel. Three of the four top-ranking Democrats on Ways and Means, after Rostenkowski, have long-standing reservations about the efficiency of tax-exempt bonds, particularly private-activity bonds.

The bond skeptics -- Sam Gibbons, D-Fla., J.J. Pickle, D-Tex., and Fortney Stark, D-Calif -- chair three of the six subcommittees within the Ways and Means panel.

So it will probably be a long time before any of the new bond supporters will become generals in the tax wars. But as foot soldiers, they can still form a solid block of support behind anyone else on the panel who is willing to lead the charge.

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