Freshman Rep. Bill Orton Gives State Bankers Pause

To his colleagues, freshman Rep. Bill Orton must seem like a strange sort of Democrat. In his first year in Washington representing Utah's third district he favored the Gulf war, voted against civil rights legislation, and opposed a waiting period for handgun purchases.

Bankers back home are wondering about him as well.

When the House Banking Committee met to vote on the Bush administration's bank reform bill, Rep. Orton was waiting with amendments to bar federally insured state-chartered banks from brokering real estate. He withdrew both proposals in the face of heavy opposition.

Although Utah banks do not now have real estate powers, Stephen Frazier, chairman of the state bankers association, said the group has not ruled them out for the future. The federal legislation would dash their hopes.

"All of us felt quite strongly that what [Rep. Orton] was doing was not in our best interest."

Rep. Orton says he favors expanded bank powers, but not without safeguards. He insists that the goal of his restrictive amendments was to save banks from the kind of crisis that hit S&Ls in the 1980s - a crisis the former tax lawyer said he tried to warn of as early as 1981.

Rep. Orton thinks Utah bankers are with him, however. "My Utah bankers don't have a problem with what I was attempting to do. They understand, and I believe agree, that it [prudence] makes a stronger banking system."

Mr. Frazier says that he and his colleagues were encouraged by Rep. Orton's response to their concerns on the issue of maintaining existing levels of deposit insurance coverage.

Rep. Orton voted for curbs on insurance when a subcommittee considered the bill. After meeting with home-state bankers, he reversed himself and voted against limits when the full committee deliberated.

The 42-year-old lawmaker has had some difficult moments in his first year on the banking committee. In explaining his real estate amendments, he said the measures were not being offered for the real estate lobby, a comment that provoked derisive laughter.

Telltale Signs of Thin Skin

When Rep. Orton asked his fellow lawmakers to show him some respect, observers began to wonder if he might be too thin-skinned for the rough-and-tumble of Washington politics.

Recalling that moment, Rep. Orton said he "didn't let them get me down." The chortling, he said, was "just a ruse to oppose the amendment."

Rep. Orton faces even tougher challenges ahead. With redistricting, next year he is likely to be pitted against Rep. Wayne Owens, a popular three-term Democrat. As a result, Rep. Orton is broadening his perspective.

In an interview, he said he is considering running for seat held by retiring Sen. Jake Garn, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee. That could be hard. Utah party chairman Peter Billings Jr. said Rep. Orton would make a "strong candidate" for senator, but concedes he is not well known in the state - or even within his own district.

Rep. Orton agrees. "I would probably have more difficulty winning my party's primary than I would the elections," he said. But he contends that constituents like him because he "votes his own mind" for the district. "I represent mainstream Utah thought. I'm fairly independent, and I'm not very partisan."

But if the voters force him into retirement next year, Rep. Orton says, he won't miss living in Washington.

Ms. Healy writes for the Medill News Service.

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