WASHINGTON -- Bank lobbyists appeared within striking distance Tuesday of chalking up their fist victory in the industry's long battle to save the guaranteed student loan program.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee is scheduled to vote this morning on President Clinton's proposal to replace the existing program with one in which the government would lend directly to students.

That proposal breezed through the House last month. But by yesterday afternoon, Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., appeared close to a compromise that would at least give banks a chance to make their case.

The Pell-Kennedy deal that was shaping up yesterday calls for a pilot program in which the government's share of the market would go to 5% next year and up to either 30% or 40% by 1996.

A presidential commission would be empaneled to review the test program, with a report due by Jan. 1, 1997 -- just after the 1996 presidential election. The commission's findings would determine whether the pilot program would be expanded.

Details to Be Confirmed

Most details of the plan were still up in the air yesterday afternoon, and it was still possible the deal could fall apart before the Senate panel meets this morning at 9.

But industry lobbyists expressed confidence that they had improved their position considerably since the House voted last month, while the White House has lost support in the Senate.

"Support for direct lending is eroding," said Philip Corwin, a lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.

Of particular importance, said Mr. Corwin and others, was an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office showing that the savings that could be expected from direct lending are at best half the $4 billion projected by the Clinton administration.

The CBO analysis came in a letter to Sen. Pell, a champion of the student lending program and one who has expressed considerable skepticism about the administration's proposal in recent weeks.

Outside Agency Desired

Mr. Corwin said one problem with the proposed compromise was the difficulty in ensuring that the White House would choose an objective commission to evaluate the pilot program.

"We think it should be done by an independent agency," he said.

Although the market share that would be permitted the government in the Pell compromise is better for banks than the full-blown direct lending program contemplated by the administration, Mr. Corwin argued that it is still too high.

"We think it should stop at 20 or 25%," he said.

One big bank lobbyist who has been working on the issue said he believes the compromise could be improved still further from the industry's perspective once the bill hits the Senate floor.

"We have concerns about the scope of the pilot program," said the lobbyist, who asked not to be named. "We think it can be scaled back still."

Even if the banking industry wins this morning, the Senate version of the bill would still have to be reconciled with the House legislation.

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