With martial rhetoric and a revivalist spirit, credit union activists swarmed into Washington this week for a lobbying assault on Capitol Hill.

Their primary mission: persuading members of Congress to co-sponsor the Credit Union Membership Access Act, legislation that would let credit unions accept more members.

"This is a battle between rich and powerful bankers and working Americans," explains a list of talking points distributed Sunday to more than 4,000 people attending the Credit Union National Association's annual governmental affairs conference here.

Even CUNA's rival trade group was marching to the same tune. "No campaign was ever won, no battle ever won, unless we were able to marshal the strength of our forces at the right time and the right place," said Kenneth L. Robinson, president of the National Association of Federal Credit Unions. Citing his own military service, Mr. Robinson called those attending CUNA's conference "foot soldiers."

The fever pitch will hit a high this afternoon when the credit union lobbyists meet on the Capitol lawn to display 1.4 million signatures on a petition endorsing the legislation.

As credit union members clean and oil their weapons, they impatiently await a Supreme Court decision in the AT&T Family Federal Credit Union case. In that lawsuit, banks have asked the court to bar employee-based credit unions from accepting members from unaffiliated companies. A decision could be released today.

Even if the credit union industry wins in court, its lobbying will continue. E.E. "Buck" Levins, CUNA's chairman and president and CEO of Robins Federal Credit Union in Warner Robins, Ga., was quick to dismiss the idea of a court victory as some sort of silver bullet. "The decision of the Supreme Court is just going to be another phase of the battle," he said.

Monday the CUNA conference took on decidedly biblical overtones. "Last year, to the bankers, we looked like shepherds on a lonely hillside watching our flocks," Mr. Levins said in a folksy drawl that could rival any Southern Baptist preacher's. "Today we look more like King David."

Daniel A. Mica, president of CUNA, took the rhetoric a step further by adapting a famous quote that says "evil" wins when "good men" stand aside: "All it takes for bankers to prevail is to have credit union people do nothing," he said.

Even Norman E. D'Amours, chairman of the National Credit Union Administration, got into the act by quoting from the New Testament while criticizing credit unions for straying from their old-time values.

"'What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his own soul?'" he quoted. "We simply must not allow credit unionism to lose its soul."

Several speakers at the CUNA conference Sunday warned that lawmakers may be reluctant to co-sponsor the membership bill because bankers oppose it. "Congress is not anxious to wade into a political battle between two constituencies that they'd just as soon be friends with," said John J. McKechnie, CUNA's vice president for legislative affairs.

To educate the neophyte lobbyists, CUNA's legislative team put on a skit. One staff member, assuming the role of a fictional Rep. Howard Friendly, tried to avoid the issue by asking whether a lobbyist's mother was "still teaching chemistry in the high school?"

The wrong answer, audience members were told, was: "Oh, yes, and she always tells the story about how you did something in the laboratory experiment where the project blew up." Such answers waste precious minutes, the CUNA pros explained.

The right answer? "Yes, but unfortunately, because of a court injunction, the students at the high school won't be able to join my credit union."

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