HOUSTON - Put on the defensive over their handling of the savings and loan bailout, Republican lawmakers are warning Democrats to steer clear of the explosive issue.

The salvos, fired in interviews here at the Republican National Convention, came in the wake of Democratic criticism of President Bush last month for funding the S&L bailout.

The Specter of Jim Wright

Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and others said that the GOP was ready to respond in kind if the Democrats try to play the S&L card.

"The Democrats were just going to let the cavity get worse," he said. "Have you forgotten Jim Wright?"

Sen. Gramm was referring to the former House Speaker and Texas Democrat who was forced out of Congress in part because he had intervened with regulators on behalf of a number of ailing and poorly managed Texas thrifts.

Mr. Wright also blocked the administration's efforts to provide $15 billion to recapitalize the insolvent Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. in 1986 and early 1987.

That sentiment was echoed in a separate interview with Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, who said: "What about the guy who did more to protect the bad S&Ls than anyone else - Jim Wright?"

Still, the savings and loan bailout trails the Bush campaign like the billowing dust of a Texas cattle drive.

Attack from Teachers

The President hadn't even set foot in town when the state teachers' union attacked him, charging that he had put the thrift industry ahead the nation's young.

"You couldn't find $5 billion for Head Start, but you surely found $500 billion to bail out the savings and loans," said Olivia Besteiro, president of the Texas State Teachers Association.

"That's absurd, unless you are going to say that only the Republicans have a fiduciary responsibility to the depositors," responded Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif.

"What we are doing now is making good on the full-faith guarantee of the U.S. government to depositors."

Cuomo's Remarks Rankle

Nobody has angered Republicans more than New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who launched what Rep. Riggs described as a "simplistic and misleading" attack on President Bush's banking policies at the Democratic National Convention last month.

After denouncing the wealthy bankers" he said had "stolen or squandered everything in sight," Gov. Cuomo turned to the administration's response. "The heavens opened, and out of the blue billions of dollars appeared. Not for children. Not for jobs. Not for the ill," he said.

"But hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out failed savings and loans," he added to a roar of applause.

"He didn't find hundreds of billions of dollars for S&Ls," said an angry Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J.

"He was complying with the laws of the land and protecting the deposit insurance system," she said. "It was a messy job, but it had to be done."

Ms. Roukema is one of the few Republican lawmakers here who believe President Bush should turn the savings and loan rescue into a campaign issue.

"He did a good job with it, and it's something he can be proud of," she said.

Moreover, Ms. Roukema believes the President should incorporate the savings and loan issue into his anti-Congress crusade.

"The scandal in Congress is not bounced checks," she said. "The true scandal is that Congress has not been willing to vote the necessary funds for the Resolution Trust Corp."

Funding in Doubt

Ms. Roukema said it is questionable whether Congress will approve any money at all this year for the RTC, which has been broke since April 1.

"That's a scandal you can lay down at the feet of Congress on a bipartisan basis," she said, adding that her party is as culpable as the Democrats on RTC funding. In particular, she cited House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich for holding up a funding package.

Even if the savings and loan bailout was President Bush's first major domestic policy triumph, most Republicans here think he'd be better off not mentioning it between now and November.

"It's like going to the dentist to deal with a toothache," said Sen. Gramm, a member of the Senate Banking Committee.

"You have to do it, but nobody's very happy about it."

"I wouldn't treat it as an accomplishment," added Sen. D'Amato. "But it was doing what had to be done."

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