Key lawmakers have agreed to shift $400 million of the tab for rescuing the Savings Association Insurance Fund to a group of institutions - mostly banks - that acquired thrifts last year.

Under the plan, which has the support of the chairmen of the House and Senate banking committees, institutions that bought whole thrifts after March 31 would have to pay a special assessment on their deposits.

Most of those acquirers are banks, including Charlotte, N.C.-based First Union Corp., and altogether some $50 billion in deposits are involved.

The bailout legislation, tucked in a huge budget bill, calls for a fee of about 80 cents on every $100 in insured thrift deposits held as of March 31, 1995. The fee is intended to increase the fund's reserves to 1.25% percent of insured deposits.

But because the legislation is stalled in Congress, that date is already 10 months old. If Congress doesn't rewrite the plan, many thrift deposits acquired after that date would escape the fee. Consequently, remaining thrifts would be forced to cover the shortfall.

"It's important to clarify Congress did not intend to give a free ride to holders of as much as $50 billion in deposits," said Robert R. Davis, director of research at America's Community Bankers, the thrift trade group.

In a Dec. 11 letter to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato and others, the thrift group's president, Paul A. Schosberg, said the bulk of the thrift industry is being forced to "subsidize a nine-month acquisition binge being conducted by others."

Among the biggest beneficiaries of the loophole, First Union would save $74 million from its acquisition of seven thrifts in the last 10 months. First Union representatives were not available for comment Monday.

Other big winners would be NationsBank, Fifth Third Bancorp, First Nationwide of Texas, First American of Tennessee, and Charter One of Ohio.

Though many of the country's largest banks would see their costs rise because of the correction, banking trade groups did not take a stand on the loophole. "We largely regard it as a drafting oversight. We've kept our noses out of it," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.

Though congressional aides said the correction has the support of key lawmakers and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Congress would have to approve the new language.

Of course, the effort to close the loophole may be moot because the thrift fund fix is part of the stalled balanced budget bill.

Congress may move the plan as stand-alone bill or may attach it to "can't fail" legislation, such as a measure to increase the federal debt limit, which is expected late next month. If those efforts fail, the thrift bailout plan may die.

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