WASHINGTON - By abandoning its hard line against helping the fund that backs thrift deposits, the American Bankers Association has raised hopes that a cure for the fund's ills is within reach.

But there is still substantial disagreement here as to just what a thrift fund rescue would entail.

In a letter sent to government and congressional leaders last Friday, the trade group said for the first time that banks might be willing to pay part of the $780 million annual interest on Finance Corp. thrift-bailout bonds, a cost that has been draining the Savings Association Insurance Fund. On Monday the Bankers Roundtable sent out a similar, shorter letter.

The offer met with applause from all quarters.

"Welcome to the party, ABA," said Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America. "This is long overdue."

On Capitol Hill, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato said the new ABA position "should expedite the process of finding permanent answers" to the thrift fund crisis.

And at the Department of the Treasury, Assistant Secretary Richard S. Carnell hailed the letter as a "significant change in tone from the ABA's past positions" that would facilitate a solution.

But in its letter, the ABA also set down seven "fundamental principles" for resolving the thrift fund's problems that may be tougher to get agreement on.

Among the principles are merging the S&L charter into the bank charter and compensating banks for their Fico help with "decreases in costs and/or increases in competitive opportunities."

Mr. Guenther for one, was unhappy about this "and/or." He reads "decreases in costs" as the regulatory relief legislation strongly favored by the IBAA, and "increases in competitive opportunities" as Glass- Steagall reform or an insurance-powers amendment, sponsored by Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., to the regulatory relief bill - both of which his organization opposes.

"What we find really troubling is that they are willing to put banker money on the table for the Baker amendment or Glass-Steagall," Mr. Guenther said. "I'm sorry, ABA, that's a lose-lose situation for community bankers."

Edward L. Yingling, executive director of government relations for the ABA, said the group wasn't referring to specific bills in the letter. He was more specific about what the ABA meant by a merger of the S&L and bank charters.

It does not, he said, mean simply allowing thrifts to continue to exist as is under a variant of the national bank charter. "If you're going to merge the charters, you're going to merge the charters," he said. "You're not going to set up two separate charters within the national bank charter."

But would Congress be interested in a true charter merger? "They ain't gonna touch that," said one bank lobbyist.

The timing of the ABA's letter was a matter of much discussion in Washington banking circles. The most popular theory was that Sen. D'Amato has nailed down a plan to fix the thrift fund, possibly through the budget reconciliation process, and the ABA didn't want to be left on the sidelines.

"The ABA didn't want to be on the outside looking in," said Paul A. Schosberg, president of America's Community Bankers. "I think the consensus is, the Senate Banking Committee is likely to act ... before the August break."

The ABA's Mr. Yingling gave several reasons for the decision to move now - including, he said, the acknowledgment by many in the thrift business that their industry is not in a "death spiral." But he agreed that possible Senate action was a concern.

"Our first concern is that the banking industry and, we believe, the S&Ls should be tremendously concerned about having this resolved in the budget reconciliation process," he said. "It means every year you're subject to being dragged into the budget reconciliation process. That would be a terrible precedent for that to occur."

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