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CLINTON HAILS BILL TO BREAK BANKING BARRIERS

Eleven months after President Clinton proposed legislation knocking down the historic barriers to interstate banking, Congress is sending him a bill to sign.

Clinton called the measure, passed 94-4 by the Senate on Tuesday, "an historic step - one that has been delayed for too long - to help American banks better meet the needs of our people, our communities and our economy."The measure is expected to accelerate the already rapid pace of consolidation in the banking industry, with analysts predicting 4,000 to 5,000 banks a decade from now, compared with 11,000 now.

It also should make banking more convenient for the 60 million people living in metropolitan areas straddling state borders. For instance, they will be able to establish a checking account in one state, where they live, but deposit their paychecks in another, where they work.

However, opponents, which included some small banks and consumer organizations, contend it will take control of lending out of the hands of local bankers.

Clinton's was the fourth administration to push for dismantling interstate restrictions in banking, dating to the 1920s, but the first to get it. Most recently, the Bush administration sought interstate banking in 1991 as part of a far more wide-ranging proposal.

The legislation Clinton will sign will permit a holding company to own a bank anywhere in the country. More importantly, it will allow holding companies to consolidate themselves into a single multistate bank.

All states, except Hawaii, already permit some form of interstate banking by holding companies, either regionally or nationally. But the changes in this bill will allow banks to skip the costly requirement of setting up separate banks, each with its own board and slate of officers, in each state.

The Clinton administration unveiled its interstate proposal last October. It received a big boost in February, when the insurance industry, seeing passage as inevitable, dropped its opposition.

The House and Senate went on to adopt separate versions of the bill and then, in a conference committee, melded them into the compromise version, which was passed by the House on Aug. 4.