"Unflappable" is the word most frequently used to describe Anthony F. Cole, the House Banking Committee's chief of staff.
Mr. Cole's well-regarded composure came in handy during the last two years as he and a few other key staff members struggled vainly to push through Chairman Jim Leach's financial modernization legislation.
While Congress did not repeal the Glass-Steagall Act this year, Rep. Leach lauded Mr. Cole's performance.
"It's imperative to have the kind of professional experience that he embodies," the Iowa Republican said in a prepared statement. "Tony Cole is the quintessential staff director, which every textbook on Congress suggests should exist but seldom does."
Mr. Cole, 49, who insists that committee employees remain behind the scenes, has been silent regarding Rep. Leach's performance. He declined to be interviewed for this article and rarely spouts off about his job to colleagues or lobbyists.
In fact, unlike other powerful figures on Capitol Hill, Mr. Cole does not schmooze with industry bigwigs, preferring instead to spend time with his wife and three children.
The graying, barrel-chested Mr. Cole is respected and well liked by his staff subordinates and lobbyists because of his calm and open demeanor. He has also endeared himself to colleagues by frequently dipping into a repertory of anecdotes collected from his years in Washington.
"Tony Cole is a raconteur without parallel," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.
One story Mr. Cole likes to retell, according to an ex-staff member, involves former Rep. Carroll Hubbard. In the story, the Democratic lawmaker cajoles Paul A. Volcker, then chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, into visiting his Kentucky district. However, when the famously low-profile Fed chief arrives, he is mortified to find downtown Mayfield decked out in balloons and banners welcoming him.
Mr. Cole was a Fed lobbyist and lawyer for 11 years before joining the banking panel's staff in 1986.
Sources said Rep. Leach has high regard for Mr. Cole's Fed experience. Rep. Leach has long tried to boost the Fed's role as a bank regulator. His Glass-Steagall repeal would have made the Fed the primary supervisor for financial services companies owning both banks and securities firms.
Throughout this year's torrent of industry lobbying, redrafted bills, and canceled committee votes - as well as heavy criticism of Rep. Leach - Mr. Cole remained fiercely loyal to his boss.
Sources complained that Rep. Leach too often failed to heed, or even seek, Mr. Cole's political counsel before launching legislative initiatives. The result, they said, was that the panel's other Republicans failed to support many of the chairman's high-profile initiatives.
Examples of Rep. Leach's approach abound, including his feud with Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig over expanding bank powers and his determined push to create uninsured wholesale financial institutions despite widespread opposition in his committee.
Many lawmakers also were baffled by Rep. Leach's surprise call last October for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to pick up the $790 million annual tab for Financing Corp. bonds used to bail out the thrift industry in the late 1980s. The plan, announced late on a Friday, was dead by Monday after being dismissed by Treasury officials and lawmakers.
It was Mr. Cole who put out the word to the administration and other lawmakers and who justified the surprise move.
"He defended the tactic," said a congressional staff member. "He argued that Rep. Leach didn't want to give Fannie or Freddie time to lobby against the proposal before it was announced. It didn't work, but you have to give the guy high marks for advocating Rep. Leach's position."
Although many staff employees and lobbyists have criticized Rep. Leach's lack of political finesse, Mr. Cole's political instincts are widely praised.
"Tony was an outstanding staff director for me," said Chalmers Wylie, the Banking Committee's ranking Republican during the thrift crisis. "One of the luckiest days for me was when I asked him to come on the staff.
"We had major crises during this time. He rose to the challenge, so we on the Republican side were able to make major contributions to the solution," said Mr. Wylie, now a Columbus, Ohio, lawyer.
During nearly a decade in the minority, Mr. Cole relished the opposition role when united House Republicans often joined with moderate Democrats. For instance, in 1994, committee Republicans teamed with Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., to win, over Clinton administration objections, deposit insurance rebates for banks that lend to low-income communities.
Such bipartisan cooperation has been rare during the two years Republicans have controlled Congress. Bickering with Democrats over the Community Reinvestment Act and consumer protection rules helped bog down Rep. Leach's sweeping financial modernization legislation.
Undaunted, Rep. Leach has vowed to resurrect his Glass-Steagall repeal measure if Republicans retain control of the House in next month's elections. If he does, Mr. Cole's political skills may be crucial to breaking the deadlock.