WASHINGTON -- Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., terrified the banking industry in 1991 when he rammed a creditcard rate cap through the Senate.

Although the measure never made it into law, the episode cemented his reputation as an enemy of the banking industry. And it is just that reputation that concerns some bankers as Sen. D'Amato prepares to take charge of the Senate Banking Committee in January.

To be sure, Sen. D'Amato's relationship with the banking industry has evolved considerably since those days, particularly during his two years as ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.

He did not try to resurrect his credit card bill and he supported banks on a number of initiatives, including the industry's all-important campaign for regulatory relief.

Still, the senator has not become an unwavering friend of the industry. For example, he cosponsored a bill with Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., that would deny federal deposit insurance to investment products like the Retirement CD -- legislation that would in effect hamper banks' push into the annuities market.

Sen. D'Amato arrived at Capitol Hill in 1980, after narrowly winning a long-shot Senate bid. He quickly established himself as a senator who would fight for his home state, paving the way for a decisive re-election victory in 1986.

But his pull for constituents also drew some allegations of ethical wrongdoing. In 1989, he was accused of using his contacts in the Department of Housing and Urban Development's New York regional office to steer federal housing money to his campaign contributors and members of his family.

Sen. D'Amato called the allegations "totally wrong," and the Senate Ethics Committee cleared him of all counts.

This year, Sen. D'Amato entered the ethics arena once again -- but this time he was the one firing off charges of impropriety. He became one of the most vociferous critics of the Clinton administration during the Senate Banking Committee's investigation into the Whitewater Development Co. and the connected failure of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan.

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