Despite opposition from Republican lawmakers, the Clinton administration continues to insist that state-chartered banks and thrifts ante up $200 million a year for federal exams.

The exam fees are part of the administration's plan to balance the federal budget by 2002. But with negotiations stalled, bankers are gnashing their teeth like furloughed federal workers.

House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach and his staff are trying to convince Capitol Hill colleagues that state banks should not have to pay for federal exams. Rep. Leach said he expects bipartisan opposition to the President's plan, but nevertheless warned bankers on Wednesday not to let up.

"They're telling us to be vigilant. No one knows what deal is going to be cut," said Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.

Besides, though Congress rejected similar proposals in 1992 and 1994, some Democrats who blocked new fees in the past are backing away from active opposition. Nebraska Sen. Jim Exon, the ranking Democrat on the budget committee, has never supported the fees, but now considers "everything on the table in these budget negotiations," a spokesman said.

Consequently, bank lobbyists are keeping the pressure on budget committee leaders Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. John R. Kasich, R- Ohio.

Still, House Banking staffers are confident that bipartisan efforts will fend off President Clinton's proposal.

"The administration may still be urging fees, but we have a strong, unified opposition," said a member of the House Banking committee staff. "There is not a shred of support for the plan in Congress."

Rep. Leach told Rep. Kasich in a Dec. 11 letter that there is no reason to levy fees on state-chartered institutions because they already send checks to state regulators, pay for federal deposit insurance, and forgo interest on assets placed with the Federal Reserve.

Rep. Leach also dismissed the idea that new fees would make a dent in the federal budget deficit. "The imposition of fees by the FDIC will not benefit the federal treasury, but will flow to the bank insurance fund," he wrote.

The administration is actually pursuing a "hidden agenda" to boost the Comptroller of the Currency's power as a bank regulator, Rep. Leach charged in the letter.

If faced with both federal and state exam fees, state-chartered institutions would be tempted to convert to national banks, which are regulated by the Comptroller, he said.

Unfortunately for banks and thrifts, the uncertainty is likely to continue. The budget's banking provisions are of relatively small importance as the budget negotiations center on tax cuts and Medicare spending.

"These meetings are not getting anywhere when it comes to banking. They're only tackling the big issues," said Ellen Lamb, a spokeswoman for the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, which also has been lobbying hard against the President's plan.

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