In this corner, wearing green: the U.S. Mint. In that corner, in red, white and blue, the staff of the House Banking subcommittee on consumer affairs and coinage, which has oversight of Mint business. We're in the middle, holding the coats.

The donnybrook began when we reported the subcommittee's charges that the Mint had tailored specifications for new coin presses so that only foreign manufacturers could respond.

To be fair to the Mint, our reporter Lisa Sylvester tried repeatedly to obtain comments from Mint Director Donna Pope's office before we issued the column. The calls went unanswered.

Since then, however, apparently stung by publication of the subcommittee staff's accusations, Pope's office has compiled a 10-page rebuttal and sent it to Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.), the subcommittee chairman, and Rep. Fernand St Germain (D-R.I.), chairman of the Banking Committee. The Mint denies it tried to cut U.S. firms out of the contract bidding, and charges the subcommittee reached "a fallacious conclusion."

"The Mint has an obligation to taxpayers to keep abreast of changing and improved technology for better productivity," the Mint rebuttal stated. It suggested that U.S. press manufacturers had failed to keep abreast, while foreign companies had.

The subcommittee staff persisted. Following are highlights of the debate:As evidence of the Mint's "tailoring" of the specs, the subcommittee cited one solicitation that specified the color of the coin press. "What that has to do with performance beats me," snapped a staffer.

"Just because you want a blue car, it doesn't restrict you to one automobile manufacturer," the Mint responded. Spokesman Michael Brown said a color requirement is not uncommon, because some presses are in areas of the Mint visited by tourists, so the agency "wants to have a unified look." Responding to the charge that only 10 firms out of 70 potential bidders solicited sent in replies, the Mint said only a handful of companies in the world can produce coin presses that meet its exacting standards. The Mint said its list of potential bidders is not highly specialized because it makes no attempt to police or qualify the names on the list; this would help account for the low response rate.

But the subcommittee cited a letter from Brown last January that stated: "We develop a list of firms capable of furnishing that particular press and mail them a copy of the solicitation." The Mint declared: "Through the use of crafty statistics and the anonymous comments of disappointed bidders, the report alleges that the Mint rigged the procurement process for preselected foreign equipment. This is a fallacious conclusion. The Mint strictly adhered to the Federal Acquisition Regulations."

The subcommittee staff riposted: "We promised {the bidders} up-front anonymity, so they could respond freely and frankly . . . . The Mint's response doesn't address the central thesis that specifications were written for particular machinery. They may have complied with the regulations, but that was in form, not substance. Maybe by the letter, but hardly by the spirit."

A final rebuttal from the Mint: "They do not have an understanding of Mint production needs."