WASHINGTON - Rep. Marge Roukema is playing some big-time catch-up in the banking arena.

For 14 years, the New Jersey Republican quietly did her time on the House Banking Committee. Often, observers say, the mild-mannered former schoolteacher seemed content to hold back from the big banking debates, preferring to devote her energies to such issues as education, housing, and labor.

That all changed after the Republican sweep last November.

As the new chairwoman of House Banking's powerful financial institutions subcommittee, the 65-year-old lawmaker has been forced to thrust herself into a host of complex and cumbersome issues facing the financial industry.

Though her views have yet to fully take shape, she appears increasingly willing to take stands on the crucial issues involved with modernizing the financial services industry. In short, she is starting to emerge as a pivotal player in determining the future of banking.

As an example of her strengthening convictions, Capitol Hill insiders point to her recent vote on a controversial measure that would allow banks and insurance companies to affiliate in most states. Rep. Roukema voted in favor of the provision - even though it was opposed by Rep. Jim Leach, the committee's chairman.

"In the past, she has not been that engaged on banking issues," said a financial services lobbyist. "She basically followed the chairman." Now though, the lobbyist said, Rep Roukema has "sent a very clear signal that her vote should not be taken for granted."

Exactly how she will come down on other issues remains to be seen. The eight-term lawmaker carefully walks the blurry line between lifting regulatory burdens from banks - which she says is crucial - and protecting the deposit insurance funds - a stance driven by her vivid memories of the thrift debacle of the last decade.

Her new post has imposed "a heavy weight of responsibility," she says. "It's been a sobering experience."

Still fresh in her mind are memories of thrift regulators coming before the House Banking Committee in the 1980s and asking lawmakers to deregulate the savings and loan industry.

Now, she says, she is worried by the faintest whiff of a threat to the soundness of the banking system.

"I don't want to make any of those mistakes again - not on my watch," Rep. Roukema says.

"I think it is the best argument for having some institutional memory around here and not having term limits," she adds.

Those memories influence her actions to such an extent that during the recent House Banking Committee deliberations on regulatory relief legislation, she shot down an amendment added by Rep. Bill McCollum, a senior House Banking Republican from Florida.

Rep. McCollum wanted to provide more defenses for the targets of director and officer liability suits. But Rep. Roukema thought he had gone too far.

"We were really opening a Charles Keating protection act," Rep. Roukema says. "I certainly don't think that was Mr. McCollum's intent, but it certainly seemed to me that he had gone beyond what was appropriate, and so I closed that loophole."

In the view of a thrift leader from her district - Jim Silkensen, executive vice president of the New Jersey Savings League - Rep. Roukema has done a fine job of airing the myriad complex issues in the thrift insurance-fund debate. The lawmaker has held three hearings, the latest last week.

"We've been very pleased with her responsiveness and recognition that there really is a problem, when for many months bankers maintained that there wasn't one," Mr. Silkensen said.

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