WASHINGTON - The American Bankers Association took sharp issue with Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chairman Ricki Tigert Helfer for saying that banks may be drawn into the debate over the thrift insurance fund.

"We strongly believe that there is no reason why thrifts should be permitted to pass their obligations on to taxpayers, banks, and bank customers," said ABA president Howard L. McMillan Jr., in a letter to Ms. Helfer.

Ms. Helfer said Tuesday that today's thrifts are no more responsible for the savings and loan crisis than commercial banks. And when asked if that meant banks should help pay for the bonds issued in 1987 to recapitalize the insurance fund, she responded: "It suggests that everyone needs to be part of the solution."

Mr. McMillan said the ABA is troubled by those comments.

Although today's thrifts did not cause the thrift crisis, they "did, however, benefit indirectly from the bailout of their insurance fund at taxpayer's expense," he said.

"They were members of a trade association that lobbied aggressively for the weak capital standards and other lax regulations that contributed directly to the S&L bailout cost."

Moreover, the thrift charter conferred "huge tax benefits" on individual institutions that were not enjoyed by banks.

"To say that today's S&Ls have no more responsibility to help pay for the S&L bailout than today's banks is simply untrue," he added.

Ms. Helfer declined, through a spokesman, to comment on the ABA letter, citing the "ongoing review process," including today's hearing on the Savings Association Insurance Fund. The FDIC is also accepting comments about how to deal with the thrift fund.

Mr. McMillan also said the applications by some thrifts to charter a commercial bank, which could be used to evade the high SAIF premiums, "clearly violate Congressional intent" in both the 1989 bailout law, and the 1991 banking law.

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