Congress left town last week without providing new money to deal with failed savings and loans, setting the stage for a high-stakes war of nerves when the legislative body returns in September.

By law, the Resolution Trust Corp. must stop taking in new conservatorships on Oct. 1. After that date, failed thrifts will be handled by the Savings Association Insurance Fund, which is essentially broke today.

As a result, there will be considerable pressure on law-makers to act by the end of September on a funding for the S&L bailout, a politically unpopular issue on which the House has avoided action for 18 months.

Conversely, however, next month could be the last chance to enact a bailout bill.

"September really is the window of opportunity," said Edward L. Yingling, executive director of government relations for the American Bankers Association. "If they can't put it together then, they'll begin to lose momentum."

A number of other big issues will loom later in the year, Mr. Yingling noted. They include the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement and Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care reform proposal. Those issues will command most attention on Capitol Hill.

First Things First

Supporters of the legislation believe they could have mustered the votes before the August break. But the House leadership was unwilling to risk a vote on the contentious issue until after Congress completed action on the high-priority deficit reduction package.

Thrifts regulators are also likely to have their eyes on the clock in September. In the absence of legislation, the RTC cannot accept new cases after Oct. 1, and few believe the thrift industry could bear up under the strain of having to pay for the resolution of institutions insolvent now or likely to go belly up in the next few years.

Good Reasons for Haste

Every weak institution placed with the RTC before Oct. 1 lessens the pressure on the thrift fund, as well as the thrifts that fuel the insurance agency with their premium dollars.

Consequently, thrift regulators "will have every incentive to put everything over to SAIF" before Oct. 1, said Stephen Katsanos, the RTC's spokesman.

Once an institution is placed in the RTC, it becomes somebody else's problem, at least as far as the thrift industry is concerned. Congress can fund the RTC and let it work its caseload out gracefully, or not fund the agency and let failed institutions remain in conservatorship indefinitely.

"Congress has not been particularly concerned about institutions, remaining in conservatorship," Mr. Katsanos noted.

A spokesman for the Office of Thrift Supervision acknowledged that agency officials are paying attention to the clock running at the RTC, but said the agency still intends to deal with thrifts on a case-by-case basis.

At present, there are 183 thrifts on the agency's problem list, said spokesman Bill Fulwider. "But a good many are profitable and reasonably well capitalized. There are a lot of factors to be taken into consideration."

Prime Targets

Most likely to be closed eventually are a smaller group of 75 thrifts, with assets of about $58 billion, Mr. Fulwider said.

Ideally, thrifts would like to see legislation that provides money for both the RTC and the savings association fund, while extending the life of the bailout agency for another year.

The House Banking Committee has passed legislation that deals with the RTC on those two points. On the thrift fund, however, the bill makes $16 billion available, but sets conditions for release of the money that may be impossible to meet.

Even in that form, the savings association fund has proved to be a sticking point. Republicans are at best mildly opposed to RTC funding, but they are vehemently opposed to the idea of giving money to the thrift fund.

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