Almost everyone agrees the Glass-Steagall Act should be repealed, and the sooner the better.

But that doesn't mean the Glass-Steagall Act is dead. A similar near consensus existed in 1991, when the Bush administration sought legislation to overhaul laws governing the financial services industry, and Glass- Steagall emerged from that battle as strong as ever.

That year, financial modernization was overwhelmed by the competing demands of a variety of interest groups and the power of hostile committee chairmen.

And while Glass-Steagall repeal has more going for it this year than at any time in the past, it could easily be brought down once again - not by the outright opposition of any one group, but by the same strange mix of interest group politics that created gridlock in the past.

Right now, it's hard to find a dissenting voice in the Glass- Steagall debate, save perhaps that of the Independent Bankers Association of America, a long-time supporter of the Depression-era law.

The small-bank trade group is flirting with the idea of endorsing the Glass-Steagall bill sponsored by House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach, R.-Iowa, on grounds that it's the least of many evils.

But Kenneth Guenther, head of the trade group, said the Clinton administration's ideas on the subject are so alarming that his organization may oppose all Glass-Steagall legislation rather than take its chances on a bill that could easily get out of control.

Mr. Guenther's opposition, though, could prove easier to deal with than the demands of those who support legislation.

The securities industry, for example, has gotten religion lately on the subject of Glass-Steagall repeal and one of its most influential players - Goldman Sachs & Co. - signed a statement endorsing the "principles" of the Leach bill.

But that's principles only, mind you, and not the bill itself. Goldman has reservations about the Leach bill and it's far from clear that it will endorse the banking committee's final product.

The Securities Industry Association has even deeper concerns. Steve Judge, its chief lobbyist, said the industry, while all but unanimous on the need for legislative modernization, can't support either the Leach bill or the administration proposal.

Instead, he said, investment bankers will support legislation only if it provides for the fabled two-way street. Securities firms want to be sure that they will have full rights to buy into the commercial banking industry, just as banks are being promised unrestricted access to Wall Street.

The problem, though, is that Rep. Leach is determined to maintain the barriers between banking and commerce and it's hard to see how his views and those of the securities industry can be reconciled.

Likewise, the insurance industry, whose demands helped bring down the 1991 bill, can also be expected to seek a seat at the table.

"We want to make sure there is a level playing field, which doesn't exist today" said Robert Rusbuldt, a lobbyist for the agents.

The agents are likely to seek amendments limiting bank insurance powers, particularly the industry's ability to offer an insured annuity known as the retirement CD.

Insurance has always been powerful politically, and there's no reason to think it will be any less influential this year. Mr. Rusbuldt thinks his own organization - essentially an association of small businessmen and women - is stronger than ever on Capitol Hill.

If the agents win, banks lose. And much of the industry would rather do without legislation than accept a bill that surrenders ground in the insurance arena.

Still, for advocates of Glass-Steagall repeal, the stars have never lined up better. The administration and the chairmen of both the House and Senate banking committees favor Glass-Steagall repeal and the jurisdictional roadblocks that blocked past legislative efforts in the House have been cleared.

As a result, the odds are in favor - perhaps only slightly, but in favor nonetheless - of those that seek to bring down the 62-year-old law. But no one should forget that the legislative initiative faces as much peril from its friends as from its enemies.

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