With his once-abysmal poll numbers climbing and Republicans securely in control of the Senate, Alfonse M. D'Amato is likely to remain Banking Committee chairman.
But given his record, banking industry leaders say the continued reign of Sen. D'Amato is a disappointing prospect.
"I like him as a senator because he's entertaining," said one banker, "but I'd rather have someone else running the Banking Committee."
That is in large part because Sen. D'Amato ceded leadership on financial services reform to House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach, choosing instead to champion consumer issues such as outlawing automated teller machine surcharges and curtailing private mortgage insurance.
Banking policy, his critics charge, is a priority for the New York Republican only when it offers an opportunity to sway votes or attract campaign contributions.
"He has used the Banking Committee chairmanship as a bully pulpit for his popularity back home," said a bank lobbyist, who, like all others interviewed for this story, would agree to discuss Sen. D'Amato's record only anonymously.
"Ranting and railing on issues like private mortgage insurance and other consumer issues has only generated press for himself while taking up time on the Banking Committee."
But a spokesman for Sen. D'Amato said Friday that both measures will become law this year.
"Everyone knows Sen. D'Amato has been the leading advocate in Congress to abolish ATM double charges, which the Senate will vote on this year, and to eliminate unnecessary private mortgage insurance, which will become law," said Harvey Valentine, the senator's press secretary.
Sen. D'Amato pledged the 1992 campaign would be his last, but he is running for his fourth term. He is expected to beat the Democratic nominee, who will not be selected until September. Slugging it out this summer are Geraldine Ferraro, Rep. Charles Schumer, and Mark Green, New York City's public advocate.
Though he has not tackled the issues of interest to bankers, Sen. D'Amato has had a full plate during his four years atop the Banking Committee. He has accused Swiss banks of hiding assets of Jewish Holocaust victims, led the Senate's Whitewater investigation into allegations of shady land deals by President Clinton, and pressured the White House to impose sanctions on foreign companies doing business with Iran.
His latest quarry is the Federal Housing Finance Board, which Sen. D'Amato decided should be abolished after fellow New Yorker and political ally Lawrence Costiglio was fired from the agency's board by the White House.
Sen. D'Amato has also shepherded key transportation and securities litigation reform bills through the Senate in recent years. Industry lobbyists point out that though banks have contributed $623,000 to Sen. D'Amato since 1991, the securities industry has given $1.1 million and the transportation-construction industry $900,000.
He did endorse the precedent-setting merger planned by Citicorp and Travelers Group the day it was announced.
"I'm in favor of the concept," Sen. D'Amato said in a brief interview after a hearing last week. "We're already moving in that direction. The comptroller of the currency is permitting broader powers for banks, and this issue is just coming to a head."
The senator dismissed any suggestion that his endorsement of the megadeal will come back to haunt him on the campaign trail. "I think people want full financial services and want to make sure there is balanced competition," he said.
But at least one opponent plans to make an issue of Sen. D'Amato's record. Mr. Green has scheduled a press conference for today to criticize Sen. D'Amato's Banking Committee record.
"When it comes to the Banking Committee, Sen. D'Amato is like the Wizard of Oz," Mr. Green said. "Pull the curtain back and you see a loud chairman who is exploiting the committee for his own reelection effort but producing next to no product."
He has made some new friends among activists, however. Recently he participated in press conferences with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group on ATM surcharges and with former House Banking Committee Democrat Floyd Flake on education reform.
"He has moved hard on private mortgage insurance and he is building support for a vote on ATM surcharges," said Edward Mierzwinski, consumer director of consumer group. "I think we could win."
But Sen. D'Amato still needs to persuade fellow Republicans to support his high-profile endeavors.
His best chance for success-legislation allowing homeowners to drop private mortgage insurance-is stuck in House-Senate negotiations. And the only significant banking-related legislation to get through Sen. D'Amato's committee this year-expanding the membership base of credit unions-was vehemently opposed by bankers.
Lack of enthusiasm from fellow lawmakers has not dissuaded him from lambasting "predatory" bankers at press conferences in his home state, speeches on the Senate floor, or in statements before his committee.
Last week he vowed to force reluctant lawmakers to vote on his bill to ban ATM surcharges by offering it as an amendment on a spending bill or some other "must-pass" legislation.
Most infuriating to bankers has been Sen. D'Amato's unwillingness to tackle financial reform that would allow banks to merge with securities and insurance firms. Sen. D'Amato introduced such a bill in early 1997 but refused to push it until the House passed similar legislation.
"If Sen. D'Amato had put his energy into the legislation and worked with Senate Democrats like Paul Sarbanes and Chris Dodd, he could have moved us closer to a rational bill that the banking industry could support," an industry lobbyist said.
The version finally approved by the House on May 13 is not supported by most banks. Sen. D'Amato plans to use that bill as a starting point, and has scheduled two days of hearings this week.
Sen. D'Amato defends his decision to hold off until the House acted by saying he did not want to waste his committee's time. After all, he noted, the Senate has twice passed similar legislation in the past decade, only to see it die in the House.
With so little time left, few expect the Senate to approve the controversial bill this year. "He let financial reform languish," a lobbyist said. "His refusal to take a leadership role has been his biggest failure."