Changing the nation's banking laws isn't a sexy topic for most Americans. Mention bank law at a cocktail party and you're apt to find yourself alone with the vegetable dip.

But for scores of lobbyists in town, the topic has amassed all the drama, suspense and angst of a Hollywood thriller, albeit a slow-motion one, given that the push to reform the laws has been going on for 20 years.

And although the saga lacks sex appeal, plenty of money is at stake. The multitrillion-dollar financial services industry has spent tens of millions pushing for or against change, depending on what point in time over the past two decades you pick.

Since 1996 alone, financial services companies have made $150 million in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsible Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance research group funded by major foundations. That's in addition to the $175 million in 1997 and $203 million in 1998 that the center estimates the industry spent on lobbyists' salaries and expense accounts, advertising, and other costs associated with trying to influence legislation in the nation's capital.

For many people in town, lobbying on bank law has evolved into a life's work--at least an adult life's work. For them the bank bill likely to become law this week is anything but boring. Once they get talking, they speak almost passionately about the many disappointments and rewards any project of such length brings over the years.

Take Edward Yingling, lobbyist for the American Bankers Association; John F. Kelly, lobbyist for Merrill Lynch & Co.; Allen Caskie, lobbyist for the American Council of Life Insurance; and Jake Lewis, lobbyist for consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Each has been working for 20 years or more on the issue of repealing decades-old laws that separate banking from securities and insurance. Each has been at odds with the other at one time or another on the issues. They have shared the ups and downs of many colleagues involved in banking issues as they have watched them raise families, send children off to college and get married. They mourned when well-liked and respected Citigroup lobbyist Gregory J. Koczanski, 42, died in August in a hiking accident in Colorado.

"There were a whole lot of times when phones slammed down and feelings got hurt," said Caskie, 51, who joined the insurance council in 1997. "I remember conference calls with brokers, bankers and insurers where at some point virtually every party would threaten to hang up and go their own way."

"There's a tendency to take things personally from time to time when they are not," he said. "Most of the people who have been doing this so long have gotten over that."

Some were lobbied before going to the other side. Lewis, 69, came to Washington in 1965 on the staff of Rep. Wright Patman (D-Tex.), who became a powerful chairman of the House Banking Committee.

Lewis stayed on under a succession of Banking Committee chairmen, always handling consumer issues, until leaving in 1992 to lobby for consumer groups on banking issues. He says his dedication to consumer issues, such as trying to make banks offer affordable checking accounts for the poor, end discriminatory lending practices and adopt financial privacy standards, comes from his mother.

"I grew up in a family that was very interested in the community," Lewis said. "My mom was a public health nurse and active in setting up health clinics along the border in Texas for low-income individuals, particularly among the Hispanics.

"My mother's work was her life down there."

A parent also influenced the career of Yingling, 50. His father was once staff director of the Senate Banking Committee and also, eventually, a bank lobbyist. Yingling and Caskie grew up in Northern Virginia, attending the same high school, St. Stephens in Alexandria, a year apart. Their fathers were even business partners in a bank in Alexandria that eventually was bought by a bigger bank.

"During acrimonious fights with the insurance industry, it was helpful to have that friendship," Yingling said. He and Caskie say they often were valuable go-betweens between the bankers and insurers because, with their family ties, they trusted each other.

Keeping good relations with other lobbyists, even those on opposite sides of an issue, has been important, lobbyists say. Not only does it make the daily grind more pleasant, they say, but in this era of financial services mergers, the person sitting next to you could very well become your boss next week.

Kelly, 60, was a financial reporter in New York City before joining Merrill Lynch there in 1965. He came to Washington in 1980 with former Merrill Lynch chairman Donald Regan, when Regan became Treasury secretary under President Ronald Reagan. In 1983, after a few months at a consulting firm in Washington, he rejoined Merrill Lynch, this time in its Washington office as a lobbyist.

Kelly estimated that 90 percent of his working days over the past four years has been dedicated to lobbying for an overhaul of financial services law.

So what will people tied to this issue do if the bill passes?

There's sure to be a second banking overhaul bill in a year or two, they say, when Congress will write the corrections they're certain it will have to make to the pending bill.

Lewis said he will keep working to push consumer provisions that he believes are sorely lacking in the pending legislation.

But many don't even want to seriously contemplate what to do until the bill becomes law.

"First we have to get this signed into law," Kelly said. "You don't want to celebrate before it's finished. After that, I'm not about to sit back and put my feet up. That's not the way Merrill Lynch works."

"And we'll have plenty of work informing our members what this means," Yingling said.

Still, Caskie said, "in many ways it will be a huge relief, because for a lot of the time we had the feeling we were fighting for the life of our industry and a lot was riding on the results. Now there are a lot of other issues out there I could be working on."