The banking committees, both House and Senate, have always been largely nonpartisan. While Democrats and Republicans argue loudly over the great issues of state elsewhere in Congress, they tend to work together on matters involving banking.

Glass-Steagall repeal and regulatory consolidation, it seems, just don't have the partisan oomph of health care reform or defense budgets. As a result, divisions on the banking committees have been determined more by home-state constituencies and political contributions than by party affiliations.

But that was before Whitewater, and well before the seating this week of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.

Because Whitewater raises questions about a Democratic President and his past relationship with a failed savings and loan, it has the potential to poison relations between the two parties on the banking committees.

Last year, in fact, when Republicans first began raising the issue, relations on the House Banking Committee grew so strained that chairman Henry B. Gonzalez sought an ethics committee investigation of the panel's senior Republican, Rep. Jim Leach.

This week, Rep. Gonzalez called Rep. Leach "a very fair-minded individual" and a good friend, and said he doubts partisanship will intrude upon the committee's business.

But he also warned of potential problems if Republicans restart what he called "the political steamroller to undermine the President."

Relations between the two sides might be disrupted further still as Republicans and Democrats come to grips with their new roles. Democrats have long accused Republican of employing disruptive tactics, and it would not be surprising if they opted for a bit of disruption themselves.

Still, the outlook for bipartisanship on the banking committees is surprisingly bright.

"I don't see a lot of partisan wrangling this year," said Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla.

Senate Democrats "will try to proceed on a very nonpartisan basis," said Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., the Senate Banking Committee's third ranking Democrat.

Sen. Kerry cited regulatory relief, a mainstay Republican issue, as one the two sides are likely to cooperate on.

On the House Banking Committee, "It might be even less partisan this year than before," added Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-N.Y. One reason, he said, is the panel's new chairman,

"Jim isn't all that partisan a fellow," Rep. LaFalce said of Rep. Leach. "I can get along with him at least as well and maybe better than the last two chairmen" - Rep. Gonzalez and Rep. Fernand J. St Germain, D-R.I.

Rep. LaFalce is one of a number of moderate Democrats on the panel who in the past have formed a loose coalition with its Republican members. When that coalition emerged, it controlled a majority of the panel's votes.

This year, House Republicans don't need any help. Even without the Democratic moderates, there is likely to be a majority in favor of Glass- Steagall repeal and regulatory relief.

But it would be a mistake for bankers to conclude that the issue of partisanship on the banking committees has been made irrelevant by the elections. The fact is, interparty relations still matter very much.

That's especially true in the Senate, where the rules give Democrats an edge over their House counterparts. "If the minority wants to, they can always hold things up," noted newly seated Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.

Moreover, the new chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, New York's Alfonse M. D'Amato, has always been more closely allied with the securities and insurance industries than with banking.

Even in the House, bankers could be in for some close votes. A prime concern for Rep. Leach is safety and soundness, and he may well insist on tougher safeguards and higher capital than most banks would be willing to accept as the price for Glass-Steagall repeal.

In that case, bankers may well find themselves once again trying to scrape together coalitions of Republicans and moderate Democrats like Rep. LaFalce.

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