WASHINGTON -- A key House Banking Committee member told administration officials they should get behind an interstate branching bill introduced by Rep. Bruce Vento, D-Minn., rather than spend time drafting their own.

Rep. Vento has proposed legislation that would phase in full interstate branching while giving states an opportunity to opt out of the system.

"I respectfully suggest that you look at the Vento bill," said Rep. Stephen L. Neal, D-N.C., chairman of the House panel's subcommittee on financial institutions and a key supporter of interstate branching. "It does everything we want to do."

Restriction Is Criticized

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon, Reps. Neal and Vento and other subcommittee members criticized the administration for proposing an interstate branching bill that would not let banks move into new states on a de novo basis -- that is, without first buying an existing institution.

"We just don't see the need for de novo branching," said Treasury Under Secretary Frank Newman.

Asked whether the administration would oppose legislation that permitted de novo branching, Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig said, "I'm not sure we would oppose it, but I'm not in a position to say we would not."

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