WASHINGTON - After laboring in relative obscurity for his first 14 years in Congress, Rep. Bill McCollum is making the most of his new status as a senior member of the ruling party.

The Florida Republican has introduced two major banking bills - one that would buoy the sinking thrift insurance fund and another that would sharply pare back the Community Reinvestment Act.

That's not unusual; Mr. McCollum has drafted major bills in the past. What's different now is that his bills are getting noticed - and have a real chance of passing.

"We are going to see major, fundamental changes in lots of areas of law which could never have been accomplished under the Democrat majority rule" Rep. McCollum said. "And that is certainly true in the banking area."

Rep. McCollum's relaxed manner and easy smile belie his intense and frenetic work pace. During the first hundred days of this Congress, the 51- year-old lawmaker managed two out of the 10 major items in the GOP "Contract with America."

And, as a high ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee and chairman of its crime subcommittee, Rep. McCollum worked on 60% of the Republican contract.

But with the GOP manifesto completed, the native Floridian has set his sights on banking issues.

Many in the industry consider Rep. McCollum, the Banking Committee's second-ranking Republican, to be the House's point man on finding a way to shore up the Savings Association Insurance Fund.

Even the administration gives his plan high marks.

"It is a very constructive proposal," said Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Richard S. Carnell. "It's helpful to have a banking committee Republican of Mr. McCollum's stature advancing a thoughtful, carefully integrated proposal for a full resolution of SAIF's problems."

The McCollum plan would use leftover Resolution Trust Corp. funds to pay for thrift failures, combine the Comptroller's office and the Office of Thrift Supervision, and merge the insurance funds - and eventually the charters - of the bank and thrift industries.

However, some bankers have a problem with the plan because it would spread over both insurance funds the cost of the Finance Corp. bonds floated in the late 1980s to start the thrift cleanup .

The bank industry contribution to the Fico obligation would come from interest earned on assets owned by the Bank Insurance Fund.

The American Bankers Association maintains that banks shouldn't have to contribute any cash, whether it be in the form of interest or actual premiums.

"We have the greatest respect for Mr. McCollum, but we cannot support his bill," says Edward L. Yingling, the ABA's executive director for government relations.

Nevertheless, Rep. McCollum says he believes the ABA, as well as a majority of the remainder of the banking industry, will eventually decide to support his bill.

That's because his plan contains a "sweetener" for banks, a provision that would rebate to member institutions money in the fund over and above the 1.25% designated reserve ratio. Under current law, the FDIC is not allowed to pay rebates.

ABA opposition to the overall bill "is understandable because its membership has not yet digested our plan," Rep. McCollum says.

"I think from the banker's perspective this is a very positive bill, and I think most of the bankers we've talked to who really looked at this find it that way," he adds.

One such supportive voice is John Milstead, executive vice president of the Florida Bankers Association.

"We think it is a good approach," says Mr. Milstead, whose organization last year merged with Florida's thrift association.

However, Mr. Milstead says, it may take more than simple rebates to induce banks to help out the thrift fund. He suggests hitting up credit unions for some of the Fico obligation.

"They ought to pay same proportionate share that banks do because they carry federal deposit insurance," he says.

Nevertheless, Mr. Milstead adds that his banker members "feel like at some point they will be asked to share in the Fico obligation, and if there's a reasonable return for that investment, they'll step up."

"With a few tweaks, McCollum could get a lot of support from the banking industry," Mr. Milstead says.

By contrast, industry support for Rep. McCollum's CRA billwas unified right from the beginning.

The measure would pare the controversial 1977 reinvestment law to a simple disclosure that banks would display in their lobbies to show how they are complying, among other provisions.

Although the Clinton administration is strongly opposed, the bill has already taken a few steps towards enactment.

A section of the legislation which would limit the Justice Department's ability to pursue fair-lending cases was successfully added as an amendment to regulatory relief legislation approved by a House Banking Subcommittee this month. The full banking committee is currently working on the legislation.

Rep. McCollum stresses that there is a place for CRA, but that banks shouldn't be buried under paperwork in order to comply with the law.

"We've not destroyed CRA - we've left a structure there for the banking community and the regulators, saying that we expect banks to be involved in the community and make outreach efforts and make credit available," Rep. McCollum says.

His bill would also make redlining - neglecting to lend to a certain geographic area - illegal under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Fair Housing Act. Even though redlining is not technically a violation of law, Congress and community groups have thrown it into the CRA arena - where the Florida lawmaker says it doesn't belong.

Redlining is "the reason that we have so much regulatory burden and so many community groups running around attempting to maneuver and manipulate CRA for purposes other than (those) for which I believe it was intended," Rep. McCollum says.

This aspect of his bill was also folded into the regulatory relief legislation.

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