WASHINGTON - Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato made clear Friday that he supports a $6 billion rescue for the Savings Association Insurance Fund - and he bluntly told bankers they must pay part of the tab.
"I feel strongly that Congress should not wait for a crisis before acting," the New York Republican said.
"I'm imploring you to work with me," Sen. D'Amato said to bankers testifying Friday before the Senate Banking Committee. "The easiest thing in the world to do is to say, 'Hell no. We won't pay.'"
The senator made his comments as the government, after months of backroom negotiations, unveiled a three-part proposal to fix the thrift fund.
The plan calls for banks to pay the bulk of the interest due on bonds issued in 1987 to fund the first savings and loan rescue; for thrifts to pay a one-time fee based on deposits; and for the bank and thrift insurance funds to be merged.
Bankers opposed any merger of the funds without also combining the bank and thrift charters.
"Merging the insurance funds while maintaining a separate thrift charter would be totally unacceptable to every banker in the country," testified Howard McMillan, president of the American Bankers Association. "Basically that would be asking the banking industry to put at risk its entire net worth."
Treasury officials said Friday that they would tackle secondary issues, including melding the two charters, this fall, after the thrift fund's financial problems had been resolved.
Though bankers attacked the government's proposal, thrift industry leaders embraced it.
To be sure, the plan would cost the thrift industry - close to a year's worth of earnings. But thrifts would also gain plenty.
First, thrifts would avoid paying a rate six times higher than banks for deposit insurance. Under the proposal, once the thrift fund was capitalized, all insured institutions would pay the same for deposit insurance.
Second, thrifts would avert any future insurance fund crisis by merging their fund into the bigger, more diversified bank fund. Because the thrift fund has a smaller, more concentrated deposit base, it is more vulnerable to losses.
Finally, thrifts would be relieved of a huge chunk of their yearly obligation to pay interest on Financing Corp. bonds.
The plan presented by the government on Friday focuses on getting the thrift fund back on solid financial footing. Broader issues such as mergering charters will be addressed in plan due by early October, Treasury Under Secretary John D. Hawke Jr. said.
Mr. Hawke said the thrift fund must first be capitalized with a one-time fee on thrift deposits. On Jan. 1, the government would collect more than $6 billion through a one-time fee of up to 90 cents per $100 of deposits. (That would include more than $1.5 billion from 700 commercial banks that hold thrift deposits.)
Once the fund was fully capitalized it would be merged into the Bank Insurance Fund - "as soon as practicable," but in any case before 1998, Mr. Hawke said.
Banks also would be required to pay 75% of the interest due on Financing Corp. bonds, or about $600 million a year for 20 years.
Though banking regulators said the taxpayers should guarantee the thrift fund against unexpected, large losses, Mr. Hawke did not advocate using any leftover Resolution Trust Corp.
"We don't think it's needed," Mr. Hawke said before the hearing. "A merger of the funds really is our alternative to using RTC money as a backstop."
Sen. D'Amato agreed that using tax dollars would be a hard sell in Congress. He wants to tuck the thrift fund fix into a budget measure that Congress must vote on this year. A majority of the senators attending the hearing agreed, although two committee members said they preferred stand- alone legislation.
Still, House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach agreed last week that the budget reconciliation bill may be the way to go, calling it the "best and fastest horse," according to an industry source.