Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato asked Friday whether the Jan. 1, 1999, deadline for distributing most government payments electronically should be delayed.

Sen. D'Amato said recent management turmoil raises "serious questions" about the Treasury Department's ability to complete the groundwork in time.

"Ill-conceived implementation ... will result in enormous financial hardship to Americans who are most dependent on government benefits," Sen. D'Amato wrote in a letter to Treasury Under Secretary John D. Hawke Jr.

The New York Republican, who has frequently criticized the effort, was piqued by the Dec. 15 removal of Russell D. Morris from his post as commissioner of Treasury's cash management arm.

"We must protect these vulnerable people from disruptions in benefits, exorbitant fees, and insufficient services," Sen. D'Amato said.

Rep. Henry Gonzalez remains unpredictable as ever.

Despite a Sept. 4 pledge to retire at yearend, the 81-year-old Democrat has not turned in his official resignation letter, sparking rumors that he will stay in his congressional seat through 1998.

Last week the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported that the House Banking Committee's ranking Democrat wants to serve out his term to prevent a Republican victory in an at-large special election.

Instead, the paper said, he wants to give Democrats time to select a single candidate who could better defend his seat in October's general election. Roll Call also speculated that a delay would give his son Charlie, a former state judge, more time to mount his campaign.

But one Democratic aide close to Rep. Gonzalez said the lawmaker still intends to step down by Dec. 31. "Henry's feeling better, but he's not running seven-minute miles in preparation to return to Washington," the aide said.

So why delay his official word? "It's hard to give up an office he's held for 37 years and he isn't going to rush it."

The Justice Department's fair-lending program has a new chief. President Clinton overrode the objections of Republican leaders and appointed Bill Lan Lee as acting assistant attorney general for civil rights. The President had tried to get the Senate to confirm Mr. Lee for the permanent post, but Republicans tried to kill the nomination last month over his support of affirmative action. By appointing him on an "acting" basis, the President bypassed the Senate.

M. Danny Wall must believe in the old cliche about trying again if you don't succeed the first time. Despite orchestrating a disastrous and expensive initial cleanup of the 1980s thrift crisis as chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, Mr. Wall was on CNBC television on Dec. 17 telling the Japanese how to clean up their banking system.

The comments outraged critics of the government's handling of the thrift crisis. "M. Danny Wall never had the guts to own up to his disastrous management" of the old Federal Home Loan Bank Board "and his constant underestimating of how bad the S&L problem was," banking industry consultant Bert Ely wrote to in a letter to CNBC. "He should therefore have the good graces today to stay out of public view, at least when it comes to discussing banking problems elsewhere in the world."

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