When the cameras are running, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato is ready and willing to let America know what's on his mind - Whitewater, the Mexican peso, the collapse of Daiwa Bank, even his on-again, off-again engagement to television gossip personality Claudia Cohen.

But though Republicans expected their takeover of Congress to usher in a tidal wave of deregulation and pro-business legislation, the Senate Banking Committee chairman has been conspicuously quiet on his plans for updating banking laws.

Many in the industry grouse that Sen. D'Amato has neglected it in favor of high-profile political battles and election year politics.

"Those things have taken a lot of time. Whitewater is a major priority of the committee," said Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.

Since July 18, when the Senate opened the first of roughly 40 Whitewater hearings held so far, the New York Republican has been increasingly absorbed by the investigation of the President's and first lady's dealings with the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan in Arkansas.

Now that Sen. D'Amato is pushing to extend the Whitewater committee's life beyond today's cutoff date, banking industry lobbyists say there is little chance the Senate will deal with any major banking legislation this year.

Not so, counters Sen. D'Amato, who while denying a request for an interview recently responded in writing to questions from American Banker. He claims to have already played a leadership role in key banking issues, specifically the pending legislation to recapitalize the thrift insurance fund.

He expects to seek a Senate vote In early March on the regulatory-relief bill his committee passed last fall. The bill would mean fewer examinations for small banks and protect lenders from environmental liability.

Sen. D'Amato also is standing by a promise to hold hearings on legislation that would eliminate the thrift charter - a follow-up to legislation rebuilding the thrift fund.

Many lobbyists are skeptical, though, and predict that any Senate hearings on the thrift charter conversion will be little more than window- dressing to fulfill his pledge.

In the meantime, Sen. D'Amato's attention will be turned elsewhere - primarily on Whitewater and on fund-raising for the 17 Senate Republicans who are running for reelection this year.

Whitewater also is monopolizing the resources of Democratic committee members, who are trying to thwart Republican attacks on President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. With their resources strained, Democrats are reluctant to take up banking initiatives as well.

"Whitewater is the source of a great amount of frustration, because of the time it takes, " said one staffer for a Democrat on the Banking Committee. "There is an endless amount of depositions, and that takes away from everything else we want do."

Consequently, other major banking legislation is likely to remain off Sen. D'Amato's radar screen - Glass-Steagall repeal in particular.

He steadfastly refuses to move ahead with Glass-Steagall reform until the House has passed a bill. "The Senate will take up these important issues once the House completes action," Sen. D'Amato told the Banker.

Sen. D'Amato's banking agenda contrasts vividly with that of his House counterpart, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa. His committee is scheduled to take up a flurry of new issues in the next few weeks, including organized crime's impact on international banking; electronic benefits transfers, and bank regulatory consolidation. Even the Chinese banking system will be reviewed, at a March 27 hearing.

On top of that, House Banking staffers are working as furiously as ever to persuade House leaders to let Rep. Leach's Glass-Steagall/regulatory reform bill come to a vote.

Some bank lobbyists complain that Sen. D'Amato's short banking agenda is a reflection of his ambivalent relationship with the industry. After his Senate election in 1980, New York banks were reportedly cool to his solicitations for campaign contributions, while Wall Street was eager to help him out. Ever since, they say, Sen. D'Amato has been in no hurry to help the banking industry.

New York State's banking supervisor, Neil Levin, said Sen. D'Amato has gotten a bad rap.

"When he first got to Washington in 1981, my sense is he was more supportive of the banking industry than he got credit for," said Mr. Levin, an aide to the senator from 1981 until 1985.

He pointed out that Sen. D'Amato was an early advocate of full interstate banking and branching, and helped fend off plans by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to assess overseas dollar deposits held by U.S. banks.

"From his earliest days in the Senate, he had a clear vision of what banks need domestically and what they need to remain competitive globally," Mr. Levin said.

Though Sen. D'Amato has not tipped his hand, some lobbyists say he may tackle more this year than skeptics predict.

If Republicans' pro-business agenda remains stalled as the November elections near, House leaders will be hard-pressed to demonstrate they've accomplished a key tenet of the "Contract With America."

Sen. D'Amato could help out. Currently, two minor House bills await consideration in his committee. Either would be an ideal vehicle for his regulatory-relief bill. Even plans to restructure the Federal Home Loan Bank Systems could be tacked on to either House bill.

"That would take him 30 seconds in May or June," one source said. "Sen. D'Amato knows how to work the system."

He has already proved adept at turning legislation over to others. For instance, Senate Banking Committee Republicans Richard Shelby of Alabama and Connie Mack of Florida authored the panel's regulatory-relief plan.

Sen. D'Amato also showed his political smarts by asking Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd to marshal the securities-litigation reform bill through the Senate. Sen. Dodd's stewardship proved crucial when Democratic votes were necessary to override President Clinton's veto.

Despite the partisan divisions created by the Whitewater investigation, Sen. Dodd credited Sen. D'Amato for reaching out to the minority party.

"All in all, I happen to believe Sen. D'Amato is doing a commendable job," the Democrat said. "He's worked closely with members from both sides of the aisle."

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