Rep. Bill Archer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, will introduce legislation today that could help revive a bailout plan for the Savings Association Insurance Fund.
Rep. Archer, R-Tex., wants to protect thrifts from $3 billion of back taxes for bad-debt reserves taken before 1988. He plans to attach the proposal to a major health care bill in hope of avoiding a presidential veto.
Thrift industry lobbyists said Rep. Archer's maneuver indicates congressional leaders have not given up on fixing the thrift insurance fund, despite a prediction last week by House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach, R-Iowa, that no action would be taken this year.
"The SAIF fix is not dead. It's still evolving," said Richard F. Hohlt, a Washington thrift lobbyist. "This is an indication of the commitment of many members of Congress to get this done."
Rep. Archer said last week that President Clinton was likely to veto the bad-debt plan if it were attached to a major tax bill. Republicans said they believe, however, that the health care bill is unlikely to draw White House opposition, according to Mr. Hohlt.
Though unrelated to health care, the bad-debt plan could become crucial to the bill's enactment because it would generate $1.6 billion to help pay for tax-deferred medical savings accounts and larger insurance deductions for self-employed people. The bad-debt plan would raise new money by forcing thrifts to repay tax breaks taken after Jan. 1, 1988, and by eliminating the breaks from future budgets.
Despite its cost, thrifts like the plan because they would not have to repay pre-1988 tax breaks if they chose to become commercial banks or were forced by Congress to do so.
Brian Smith, director of policy development for America's Community Bankers, said he was pleased that Rep. Archer is pushing the bad-debt plan. But Mr. Smith warned that the legislation might fail if it were saddled with too many amendments.
Fights over tax and health care issues also could make the plan vulnerable, he said, even if lawmakers supported it.
"If it's attached to high-profile legislation, the decision-making goes way beyond a narrow issue in financial services," he said.
The bad-debt plan is a critical component of efforts to recapitalize the SAIF and eventually merge the bank and thrift charters. The thrift fund fix and bad-debt recapture were included in the balanced budget bill President Clinton vetoed in December.
Since then, congressional leaders have eyed the thrift fund and the bad- debt plans as means to offset roughly $6 billion of tax cuts they hope to include in "must pass" legislation to fund the government or increase federal borrowing authority.
The thrift trade group is lobbying Congress to include the SAIF fix in the new spending bill that must be passed Friday, or in a debt ceiling increase that must be approved by the end of March.
"How it is done is a matter for Congress. We're interested in results," Mr. Smith said.
Though the American Bankers Association supports the bad-debt plan, it opposes the thrift fund recapitalization because it would force banks to assume nearly $600 million of annual payments on bonds used to bail out the savings and loan industry in 1987.
Mr. Smith said his group's members are keeping up an aggressive lobbying effort because the outlook for the fund fix seems to change daily.
"We were not suicidal last week," he said, "and we're not walking on air today."