The Senate's Whitewater investigation has diverted attention from banking legislation since last July, but the distraction may soon be much worse.

With Democrats blocking numerous attempts to reauthorize his panel, Senate Whitewater Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato has threatened to resume the inquiry under the jurisdiction of the Banking Committee after Congress reconvenes April 15.

Should Sen. D'Amato move the investigation to the banking panel, there is little hope that industry-related bills would progress, said one banking lobbyist who asked not to be identified.

"This would be the death knell for legislation," he said.

Sen. D'Amato, who also is chairman of the banking panel, acknowledged the move would be difficult."This will be a great strain on the banking committee members and staff," Sen. D'Amato said in a statement issued Monday.

All but one of the Senate Banking Committee's 16 members was on the Whitewater panel, which has been suspended since its authorization expired Feb. 29.

Sen. D'Amato has requested $600,000 to continue the investigation, but Democrats have blocked a vote on the request, calling the inquiry a partisan smear campaign against President Clinton.

By increasing partisan tensions, the investigation could also poison relations between Sen. D'Amato and Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Whitewater committee, said a staffer for Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill.

"In that atmosphere, the comity needed for moving things quickly will be hard to come by," Sen. Sarbanes said.

Even legislation already approved by the committee, such as the regulatory relief bill, may have a hard time progressing. "If D'Amato and Sarbanes go at it, how can you get regulatory relief on the Senate floor?" one lobbyist asked.

But some lobbyists said Whitewater has been such a distraction, that moving to the banking committee will make little difference.

"The time devoted to Whitewater will be the same no matter what the name of the committee," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association.

Peter Kravitz, lobbyist for the Independent Bankers Association of America, said election campaigning will leave little time to move major banking bills anyway.

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