With financial reform slated for a vote in the House on Wednesday, the question on many minds is: What has changed since March 31, when Republicans were forced to yank the legislation at the last minute?

The short answer: Not much.

The Clinton administration continues to threaten a veto. All but a few large banks remain opposed. And even if the House does approve it, there is not enough time for the bill to move through the Senate.

But the biggest problem may be that the 286-page bill remains extremely complex and controversial. Asking a congressman who is getting lambasted by his district's community bankers to vote for something that has next to no chance of being enacted this year is a tough sell.

"I went home and got bashed around the head on the credit union bill-now this," is how one Democratic staff member on the Banking Committee paraphrased the sentiment of various congressmen. "Why are you asking me to do this?"

Indeed, a vote for the financial reform bill is the second blow of a one-two punch to community bankers. The House voted 411 to 8 last month for legislation easing membership limits on credit unions. The measure is moving through the Senate now and is expected to become law.

That's not to say no progress has been made since March 31.

Republicans did cut a deal with Rep. John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who wielded great power when his party controlled the House. The former Commerce Committee chairman agreed to support financial reform after Republicans agreed to tack on eight consumer protections.

But in gaining Rep. Dingell, Republicans lost a more important Democrat: Rep. John J. LaFalce of New York. As House Banking's ranking Democrat, Rep. LaFalce knows the issues inside and out. That, coupled with the administration's opposition, could sway other Democrats to vote against the bill. Last week, Rep. LaFalce vowed to gut the bill on the House floor if his pro-bank amendments are rejected.

The flurry of proposed megamergers including the Citicorp-Travelers Group deal also has shaken the political landscape in the past six weeks. But conflicting arguments over the impact of the merger frenzy could mute its policy impact.

The bill's supporters contend that the mergers are a warning to Congress to act now so the government can properly regulate these large financial companies and prevent another crisis like the thrift industry bailout.

"We should not wait," House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald Solomon said last week. "There are those members of Congress who think we don't need a bill, let things go. That just is not true."

Also, Citicorp's powerful lobbying shop has switched to the pro- legislation camp now that the combination with Travelers requires a bank holding company to be able to underwrite insurance.

And finally, since March 31 Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan has turned into a high-profile pitchman for the bill. At nearly every appearance, Mr. Greenspan explains why the nation needs financial reform. Passage would cement the Fed's pivotal role in bank supervision by requiring most new activities to be conducted in a holding company subsidiary.

But both sides agree the vote will be close.

"The most optimistic scenario is a narrow victory," said Rep. Richard H. Baker, R-La. "This is the last window of opportunity for legislation this year and may be for a while."

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