It may have been the spirit of goodwill in the recent holiday season, or it may have been the culmination of careful deliberation by astute businessmen who grudgingly accepted reality.

In any event, the way has been paved for a compromise on the latest version of the District's interstate banking bill, a controversial proposal that was approved last month by a committee of the D.C. City Council.

Recent conversations with some D.C. bankers indicate a willingness on their part to agree to a compromise that would permit national interstate banking in the District, perhaps in two to three years.

Last fall, the council overrode a veto by the mayor and enacted a reciprocal interstate banking law that permits mergers between D.C. bank holding companies and those in 11 states, mostly in the Southeast, including Maryland and Virginia.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry had proposed an interstate bank merger bill that would have accomplished the same thing. But the mayor reversed himself in the face of a massive lobbying campaign by New York banking organizations that want to establish banks in the District.

One regional interstate merger -- between United Virginia Bankshares Inc. and NS&T Bankshares Inc. of the District -- has been completed since the council approved the reciprocal banking law. Three other interstate bank mergers are pending under reciprocal agreements between the District and Virginia.

Nonetheless, a committee of the D.C. Council did a little backtracking of its own last month when it approved an omnibus substitute bill that would authorize national interstate banking for the District.

Big money-center banks would be forced to pay a stiff price for the right to take deposits in the District, however. Besides having to fill rigid employment and investment quotas, they would be required to sign irrevocable letters of credit and would be subject to stiff fines for failure to comply.

The D.C. government "intends to leverage [the money-center banks] for the benefit of the city," said council member Charlene Drew Jarvis after her committee approved the proposal. It is "an extraordinary victory for the economy of the city," she added.

Local bankers consider it a victory at their expense. They couldn't care less about the price of entry for money-center banks.

What bothers them is a provision that would permit any banking organization from outside to establish a new bank in the city after three years. The current interstate banking law and those of others in the Southeast permit entry only through acquisition of existing banks.

"We certainly feel that the new proposal really cuts the sails out of the regional interstate banking bill," one chief executive officer of a D.C. bank complained shortly after the committee approved the measure.

If D.C. bankers had their way, the District would have been off-limits indefinitely to banks from outside the region, as defined in the existing law.

Now, however, there are strong indications that common sense and business acumen have replaced parochial stubbornness.

"If the city can gain economic advantages [by allowing early entry of money-center banks], I can't argue with that," the chairman of a District bank conceded the other day. "For too long, banks here were controlled by individual owners or people who were out of tune with the community."

The mayor and the council shouldn't read that as an unconditional surrender.

The same banker strongly emphasized his support of a critical point on which the D.C. Bankers Association apparently won't yield: A provision that would permit institutions from outside the city to establish new banks is unacceptable.

Local bankers are further opposed to allowing nonregional banks to achieve early entry through acquisitions.

"The regional law only became effective in November. I'd like to see two years, at least," before they can enter the District, said one local banker.

That's progress. A so-called "trigger" provision that would set a date for the start of full interstate banking in D.C. had been vigorously opposed by local bankers. Now, however, in a semantics sleight of hand, nobody speaks of a trigger.

Lest the mayor and the council have some difficulty reading between the lines, this means D.C. bankers are willing to support a provision calling for national interstate banking. But they would like a little more time to prepare for the transition, say two or three years. It is also worth noting that bank holding companies in Virginia, at least, are prepared to accept what one official calls "the inevitable" in the District.

"We've got a good head start on the competition," acknowledged an official at United Virginia Bankshares Inc., which recently merged with NS&T Bankshares of the District. "By the time those [money-center] institutions come into the area, we will have set up shop, and customer loyalties will have been built."

That is precisely the purpose of reciprocal interstate banking pacts: to give regional banks sufficient time to prepare for the inevitability of national interstate banking.

The time seems ripe for a compromise in the District.