Defending herself against a slew of critics, Rep. Marge Roukema denied Thursday that she mismanaged the regulatory relief legislation and endangered its chances of enactment this year.

House Banking's financial institutions subcommittee chairwoman is being slammed for supporting an amendment to the bill that would exempt 83% of banks from the Community Reinvestment Act.

Contradicting remarks she made earlier in the day, Rep. Roukema joined her fellow Republicans on the subcommittee in support of the controversial measure, which was offered by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., and adopted on a strictly partisan 11-to-8 tally.

Though the legislation made it out of the subcommittee, the CRA amendment is likely to keep House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach from scheduling a vote on the bill, committee staffers said.

"That surprise amendment clearly clouds prospects for full House passage," said Marty Farmer, lobbyist for the Independent Bankers Association of America.

Rep. Roukema insisted in the interview that regulatory relief is still alive. The New Jersey Republican said she planned to meet with Rep. Leach on Thursday afternoon to discuss the legislation. She also promised to confer with other lawmakers to try to develop a compromise.

Hopes for a middle ground are slim. Democrats have fervently and repeatedly defended CRA in recent years. Backed by a presidential veto threat, they prevented Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., from attaching an identical amendment to the credit union bill.

Critics said that Rep. Roukema should have voted against her party in order to keep the legislation uncontroversial, recalling that Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato sided with Democrats to keep the same exemption out of the credit union bill.

"Everyone hoped Marge would have taken a stronger lead," a minority staffer said. "The prerogative of the chairman will sway all but the most hellbent."

Rejecting that knock on her leadership, Rep. Roukema shifted blame to Democrats for being unbending on CRA issues.

"I take that responsibility (as chairman) very seriously," she said. "However, the minority cannot have so many poison pills that the tail is wagging the dog." (Democrats referred to the amendment during debate as "a poison pill" and a deal-killer.)

The Democratic staffer admitted that only eight of the 14 Democrats on the subcommittee were present for the vote. "We could have had done more on our own to have the troops there."

Rep. Roukema adamantly defended her decision to back the CRA rollback, arguing that small banks deserved a break after Congress eased credit union membership limits. In this case, she said, principle was more important than responsibility to keep the bill free of deal-killing amendments.

"I had to vote with McCollum on the CRA," she said. "After all, look what we did for the credit unions."

Yet just hours before she cast her vote, Rep. Roukema said she would vote against the amendment in a speech on the House floor.

Praising a decision not to jeopardize the credit union bill by attaching a CRA-like provision, she said: "I do look forward to providing small community banks and savings associations with similar relief at the appropriate time, but this is not the time today."

Roughly an hour later, she voted for the CRA exemption to the regulatory relief bill.

Alternatives remain for passage of regulatory relief before Congress adjourns in October. The Senate approved a similar bill last week without the CRA amendment, and lobbyists said regulatory relief could be attached to other banking or spending bills.

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