Late last month, the House Banking Committee reached bipartisan agreement on a rescue package for the thrift insurance fund, a package that offered some sweeteners to banks.

Congressional insiders say that the deal took hold because banks finally agreed to negotiate. "The banks initiated (the deal) by signaling to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. that they were willing to do a phase-in" of interest payments on the Financing Corp. bonds, said a key legislative aide.

Many credit FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer for bringing banks to the table.

Because she is the protector of the deposit insurance funds, Ms. Helfer had the moral high ground, insiders said. She could be the "honest broker" trusted by thrifts, banks, legislators, and the administration.

"This is her baby," said Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y., a key member of the House Banking Committee. "She's the most hands-on chair of the FDIC I've seen since I've been in Congress," he said.

For her part, Ms. Helfer insisted, "I simply encouraged people to talk to each other."

Ms. Helfer has been meeting with bankers across the country for more than a year, warning them about a coming crisis in the Savings Association Insurance Fund. Banks began to take her SOS more seriously as thrifts, weary of paying high premiums, started shifting billions of dollars in deposits to the Bank Insurance Fund.

A legislative rescue for SAIF passed Congress last December but was vetoed by President Clinton for unrelated reasons.

Ms. Helfer soldiered on, less and less hopeful Congress would act in 1996. But in July, the bailout's chances began to improve.

On July 1, the FDIC approved deposit insurance applications for two Midwestern thrifts, signaling that it would not oppose the voluntary shifting of deposits from the thrift fund to the bank fund.

On July 16, Ms. Helfer began new rounds of talks with bank and thrift trade groups, looking for new approaches to rescuing the fund that banks could accept.

On July 18, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency approved a full national bank charter for TCF Financial Corp., further swelling the potential stream of deposits from SAIF to BIF.

The next day, Ms. Helfer delivered a pull-no-punches speech to bankers in Kansas. If legislation fixing the thrift fund is not passed this year, Mr. Helfer said, a crisis could occur in 1997 that could panic Congress into merging the two insurance funds. Such a coupling would result in a 13-basis-point premium increase for banks, she said.

"She put forth the very strong case to bankers that 'my mess is your mess,"' said Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.

"She didn't leave a leaf unturned," he added, noting that she also persuaded the White House to weigh in with a letter to House leaders the day House Banking voted.

The SAIF rescue bill is still a long way from law, but Ms. Helfer's tenacity has paid off. Banking trade groups last week agreed to pay $320 million in Fico bond interest for the next three years as long as the bill also contains regulatory relief.

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