The House Banking Committee convenes on Tuesday to mount a challenge to the 62-year-old Glass-Steagall Act. But it is the committee's chairman, 52- year-old Rep. Jim Leach, who may be facing the stiffest test.

The Iowa Republican has been leader of the banking panel for a mere four months, and the outcome of the committee's deliberations may go a long way toward determining how powerful a chairman he will be.

Power is an elusive quality on Capitol Hill. A certain amount of built- in authority, particularly the right to set the agenda, gives a chairman an edge in every debate. But it is only an edge.

A chairman must still be able to lead on the basis of strong ideas and force of personality. Those who cannot command a majority on big issues will quickly become chairmen in name only.

Glass-Steagall is a big issue, the first major banking issue to occupy the committee's time, and thus it poses Rep. Leach's first test as chairman.

Rep. Leach wants to limit debate to the Glass-Steagall Act itself, which separates the commercial and investment banking industries. Others on his panel and elsewhere on Capitol Hill have different ideas.

Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., would like to enlarge the debate. At a minimum, Rep. Baker believes the committee ought to permit mergers between banks and insurance companies, and he would like to permit affiliations between banks and all kinds of nonfinancial companies.

For Rep. Leach the idea of permitting mergers between the likes of Citicorp and General Motors is unthinkable, while alliances between banks and insurance companies are only slightly more palatable.

The question is, how far will Rep. Leach go to get his way on an issue that he has declared to be a matter of the highest principle?

Rep. Leach has intimated that he will not permit votes on some issues, including the separation of banking and commerce and the problems facing the Savings Association Insurance Fund. Those questions can be ruled nongermane to the proceedings and dismissed. Rep. Baker is unlikely to challenge the chairman's ruling and, as a result, may decide against offering some amendments.

And even if Rep. Leach prevails on every major vote, there are formidable obstacles ahead. The securities and insurance industries are powerful lobbies and their goals are directly at odds with those of Rep. Leach.

The banking committee chairman faces tough battles on the House floor and later in negotiations with the Senate, which also may want to go much further than he does.

Still, Rep. Leach may very well prevail - and for reasons that will surprise some who have not paid close attention to his evolution as a leader.

For years, he was seen as a loner who was perfectly content to lose on principle. When he became ranking Republican two years ago many wondered if he was up to the job, just as some question today whether he has the discipline and flexibility to engineer the compromises that make legislation possible.

But Rep. Leach has adapted at every step of the way. He took his responsibilities as the panel's Republican leader seriously in the last Congress and he seems determined this year to make use of the power of the chairmanship.

Those who recall the Jim Leach of years past express surprise at the transformation, marveling, for example, at his apparent willingness to rule amendments nongermane.

"I know Jim Leach, and the chairman is no Jim Leach," said one congressional aide, borrowing from Lloyd Bentsen's famous comment about Dan Quayle.

For his part, Rep. Leach makes no apologies for his new role.

"There is a massive distinction in expressing strongly held views as a member of the minority and being responsible as chairman of a committee for decisions that are going to affect the future shape of the American economy," he said in a recent interview.

Rep. Leach is about to be tested, and it remains to be seen whether he will win. But anyone who thinks the Iowa Republican is not up to the test is engaging in self-delusion.

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