When Congress returns next week, lawmakers will have 17 working days left to pass legislation rescuing the Savings Association Insurance Fund.
The odds of enactment are long as Democrats insist on changes that could kill the banking industry's support for the measure. The insurance industry, too, continues to lobby for restrictions on bank powers. Even provisions included to broaden the bill's appeal could doom it.
The biggest challenge is time.
Congress is to return Sept. 3 from its summer recess and is scheduled to adjourn Sept. 28. With time off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, only 17 working days remain in this session, and that assumes lawmakers work Fridays - a day they often take off.
Another large roadblock could be Democratic efforts to water down the regulatory relief package that was added to win bank trade group support.
"Obviously, they've got to keep insurance provisions out of this bill, and they must keep enough regulatory relief to keep banks on board," said Sam H. Leaman, who follows banking legislation for HSBC Washington Analysis, a research unit for the securities subsidiary of HSBC Group PLC.
Even if House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach makes a deal with Democrats and fends off any insurance amendments, the issue could rise again in the Senate. Sources said some senators, particularly Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, also may push to attach insurance restrictions.
The thrift fund compromise reached by the House Banking Committee last month would make thrifts capitalize their deposit insurance fund with a big one-time assessment on deposits. Next year, banks would begin paying interest on Financing Corp. bonds used to bail out the savings and loan industry in the late 1980s - a move the industry has fought all year.
To get the American Bankers Association aboard, Rep. Leach not only offered the regulatory relief package but also agreed to make thrifts pay through 1999 most of the $800 million a year in Fico interest due. After then, banks would contribute $600 million a year toward the annual Fico tab through 2017.
Further complicating the thrift fund rescue, Rep. Leach wants to let financial firms establish wholesale financial institutions and to expand the merchant banking powers of some bank holding companies. He insists that these new powers would build support for the plan among major banks and securities firms - enough to persuade Republican leaders to reject any insurance-related amendments.
But Kenneth L. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America, said the industry should oppose wholesale banks because they would have access to the Federal Reserve payment system. Such access is one of the few services that nonbank competitors can't offer now.
Treasury Department officials were on Capitol Hill Friday urging House staff members to reach a deal. Treasury Under Secretary John D. Hawke Jr. said a quick agreement is possible.
"I'm very optimistic we can get this done this session," he said. "If we can develop a thrift fund package banks and thrifts agree on and a regulatory relief component nobody has disagreement with, there is enormous opportunity to put this behind us."