ORLANDO -- A key Senator warned that the thrift industry faces an uphill battle next year on its most important legislative issue: maintaining parity with banks on deposit insurance premiums.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., said the solution most appealing to the industry -- using taxpayer money left over from the Resolution Trust Corp. to shore up the Savings Association Insurance Fund -- would be politically unpopular.

In fact, the industry will have to work hard to persuade lawmakers to address the issue at all.

"These guys are going to have to do a Herculean job of getting the attention of their congressmen and senators," Sen. Dodd said.

He spoke to thrift executives gathered here at the Savings and Community Bankers of America's annual convention.

"The ghosts of the savings and loan crisis and the banking downturn will continue to loom over the Capitol for many years to come," Sen. Dodd said. "Members of Congress will continue to see them when legislating in the banking area."

Two top industry regulators also told thrift executives that the burden would be on them to devise solutions to the problem. They said thrifts should forge a consensus with banks on the issue instead of slugging it out on Capitol Hill.

Said Andrew C. Hove Jr., vice chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.: "We are urging the industry to take a position."

Both he and Office of Thrift Supervision acting director Jonathan L. Fiechter said that thrifts could recapitalize their insurance fund within a few years if they did not have to pay interest on the Financing Corp. bonds, which help pay for the savings and loan cleanup. Mr. Hove said 47% of thrifts assessments are now used to pay for the FICO bonds.

The Bank Insurance Fund is expected to recapitalize more quickly than the Savings Association Insurance Fund.

As a result, banks are likely to pay far less in premiums than thrifts.

SCBA advocates merging the two deposit insurance funds.

Its President, Paul A. Schosberg, said that a large premium disparity would hurt the industry's ability to compete. "You throw an anchor around one of their legs and dump them in the water and it gets real tough to do the crawl," he said.

But Mr. Schosberg acknowledged the need for the two industries to work together.

"A political consensus has to be forged within the banking industry if we are going to see a consensus between the Administration and Capitol Hill," he said.

James F. Montgomery, chairman and chief executive officer of Chatsworth, Calif.-based Great Western Bank, was optimistic. In the end, thrifts and banks "are going to be able to sit down and come up with something that is palatable to the Congress," he said.

If, as many expect, bank premiums drop to 20 basis below the rate charged thrifts, Mr. Montgomery said his institution would be paying $60 million more annually in deposit premiums than his banking-industry competitors.

If no solution is reached, it would hurt thrifts' bottom lines and their ability to access the capital markets, Mr. Schosberg said.

The nation's 2,200 thrifts have just under $1 trillion in assets.

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