With Capitol Hill consumed by the impeachment of the President and another vacancy for Speaker of the House, banking lobbyists face the prospect of pushing their legislative agendas through the most volatile political climate in at least a quarter century.
Casualties from the highly partisan battleground could include enactment of financial services and bankruptcy reform bills and speedy confirmation of John D. Hawke Jr., who was recently given a recess appointment as Comptroller of the Currency.
These already controversial items require bipartisan support, a notion that has fallen by the wayside, though some observers see a cause for hope in the latest speaker candidate, Rep. J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
"The political legacy of the partisan rancor and the difficulty of corralling members for nonpartisan issues is going to be a serious problem," said Karen Shaw Petrou, president of the ISD/Shaw Inc. consulting firm here.
"Clearly, we are on uncharted ground," said Samuel J. Baptista, president of the Financial Services Council. "You just don't know. You don't even know how to approach it."
The uncertainty and unpredictability could be exacerbated as the Senate turns to the task of judging whether President Clinton should be removed from office for alleged perjury or obstruction of justice.
"If there is a full-blown trial," said Robert A. Rusbuldt, executive vice president of the Independent Insurance Agents of America, financial issues "are going to be pushed to the back burner. Only essential things will get done."
Others, while agreeing that the chaos makes their job tougher, were more optimistic. They pointed out that a new Congress typically takes a couple of months to get rolling. If the impeachment matter is resolved by late January or February, some lobbyists contended, little time would actually be lost.
"I don't think it is going to get in the way," said Peter L. Blocklin, a Senate lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.
Mr. Baptista, who represents a coalition of financial service reform advocates, even saw an upside. Lawmakers desperate to put down a list of legislative accomplishments might want to push through bills that already have been heavily debated.
"If you are looking for a big issue that can be addressed in a bipartisan manner, financial reform is one," he said.
The political calculus for 1999 became even tougher following the shocking resignation announcement Saturday by the House Speaker-designate, Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, who said his confessed marital infidelities made his leadership position untenable.
He was set to succeed Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich, who resigned after Democratic gains in the November elections.
Now bank lobbyists are trying to figure out if they might fare better under the Illinois Republican who is the consensus pick to be the next speaker.
Rep. Hastert, a 56-year-old former teacher and wrestling coach, has served in the House since 1986. He has been a leader on health-care reform issues and his treatment of banking issues is hard to predict.
As a member of the House Commerce Committee, he voted for financial reform but raised concerns about its impact on community banks, sources said. Rep. Hastert backed provisions that would have let banks underwrite municipal revenue bonds and opened the Federal Home Loan Bank System's doors wider to small banks. He also favored scaling back community reinvestment requirements for small banks.
He voted for financial reform on the House floor last May and, as chief deputy whip, helped Rep. Gingrich twist enough Republican arms to get the bill passed by a single vote.
Some banking industry officials worry that Rep. Hastert may bring the House Commerce Committee bias for placing expanded financial powers in holding company units instead of within banks.
"It could give the insurance lobby and the securities lobby a little more clout in the House," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.
Others said Rep. Hastert's reputation as a studious, open-minded legislator who is skilled at bipartisan compromise would be a boon. "The bank-friendly version of HR 10 is something he might like" because it has won broad support, said one.
Allen R. Caskie, senior counsel on federal relations for the American Council of Life Insurance, was more skeptical, saying "it is unlikely the new leadership group in the House is going to be as committed (to the financial bill) as the last one."