Wary of getting into a public debate over the rising cost of the savings and loan cleanup in the midst of political campaigns, Congress and the White House yesterday moved toward a short-term financing plan that would defuse the issue until after the November elections.
With less than a week until the congressional session ends, neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives has approved the Bush administration's request for $57 billion in new funds for the Resolution Trust Corp. (RTC), the agency in charge of the S&L cleanup.
Public resentment has been building against the cost of the S&L cleanup and congressional sources said the funding measure has been stalled because few lawmakers wanted to run the risk of voting for a politically unpopular -- but unavoidable -- spending measure on the eve of the elections.
Late yesterday, House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), suggested the administration settle for short-term financing to keep the RTC going at a full pace until early next year, when Congress reconvenes.
Treasury officials said they have always been willing to accept short-term funding. "They need to vote some money before they go out," a senior Treasury official said last night. "At this time any additional S&L money is a difficult vote, but it's a vote that needs to be done."
The administration has warned that the S&L cleanup will grind to a halt without additional money, but has expended little energy in support of its request. Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady refused twice this week to go to Capitol Hill to fight for the money, even though Gonzalez warned Brady that without his appearance the committee would not approve the funds.
The administration's funding request for 1991 includes $40 billion to cover losses from thrift failures and $17 billion to be used as reserves against borrowing. The RTC does not need congressional authorization to borrow money temporarily and agency officials have already estimated they will need $60 billion in short-term borrowings next year.
The administration has been warning for the past week that congressional inaction could cause the RTC to run out of money by the end of the year, which would force the agency to stop shutting down failed thrifts. The administration claims this would add as much as $250 million to the cleanup costs.
But congressional aides said the threat is overblown and there is no immediate danger of running out of cash because the RTC has $12 billion in funds available and could borrow another $18.8 billion, even if Congress fails to act. By using that borrowing power, the RTC could keep operating until the next session of Congress reconvenes, although perhaps at a slowed pace, agency officials said.
Under a potential compromise, Congress would provide $5 billion to $20 billion to bridge until the new Congress convenes.
A letter signed by 20 members of the banking committee and sent to Brady on Thursday said the public is due a full assessment of the progress of the cleanup and an explanation of its costs. Without that, committee members said, there is "a great risk of public backlash and the impression of avoiding public debate. ... It appears that with the last minute timing you are satisfied to ask Congress to slip this funding through without proper justification."
The letter spelled out questions about S&L cleanup costs that House members said must to be answered, but administration officials insisted the need for funds has been spelled out repeatedly in congressional hearings.
"This is a hot potato," said an aide on Capitol Hill. "Nobody wants to become overwhelmingly identified with it."
There is "absolutely no chance" that the cleanup could be imperiled by the failure of Congress to act, a high-ranking House aide said. But, the aide said, there also is little chance that Democratic leaders will schedule a public vote for the full $57 billion before the Nov. 6 elections.
Administration officials have been warnings for months that the thrift cleanup would run out of money toward the end of this year, but the administration made no specific request for funds until last week. The request for $57 billion was quickly approved by members of the Senate Banking Committee, few of whom are up for reelection this year.
But the Senate leadership has yet to call the measure to the floor and in the House, Gonzalez and other influential members have insisted they could not act without hearing Brady's testimony on the need for more funds.
Republicans have charged that Gonzalez was seeking a political cover for the funding vote. If Brady would testify publicly about the need for money, then Democrats could defend a vote by saying they were only giving the administration what it asked for.
Brady refused, however, and raised the specter of the cleanup stalling unless Congress voted the money.