By David Lightman

Fleet and Shawmut bank officials said Thursday they will make a serious and immediate effort to limit job losses in Connecticut resulting from their merger to only half the 1,100 to 1,200 originally announced -- but they offered no specifics and no guarantees.

Terrence R. Murray of Fleet Financial Group Inc., who will be president and chief executive officer of the new bank, and Joel B. Alvord of Shawmut National Corp., who will be chairman, gave that news to members of the Connecticut congressional delegation at a private meeting in the Capitol. Members of the delegation are protesting the proposed Fleet buyout of Shawmut.

The officials made the statement as Sens. Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman, both D-Conn., and Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly, D-1st District, sent angry letters to federal regulators.

The merger, the lawmakers told Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, "will have a devastating economic effect on Connecticut and the New England region."

But by midday Thursday, after the hourlong meeting, the three members of Congress found hope that matters might be less devastating than they believed.

"We're satisfied that within the next 10 days to two weeks we'll get some specifics," said Dodd, who as the second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee has some clout in the area.

Kennelly, whose district would be hardest hit by the sale, said she was "very pleased at the outcome," but Lieberman tempered his enthusiasm a bit.

"We hope we've started a process that will lead to a result that will be good news for Connecticut," he said.

Murray heard their cry. "There's a great deal of empathy for what's happening," he said. "Maybe there are other options to offset [the job losses]."

He talked about "substitute jobs," but did not specify what those jobs might be.

When the two institutions announced their merger Feb. 21, they estimated it would cause the loss of 3,000 jobs, with 1,100 to 1,200 in Connecticut.

Thursday, Murray was asked after the meeting if he could cut that job loss number for Connecticut in half.

"I hope so," he said.

He would not save jobs by paring back on consolidation, though. "The nature of the business is consolidation," Murray said.

But, he explained, the new bank will be an ever-expanding, modernizing company, and certainly there should be new opportunities to find people work.

"We've got to do some homework," Murray said. "We have to look at the strategic initiatives of the company."

Murray and Alvord said that they would report back to all those concerned, including Gov. John G. Rowland, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the General Assembly and others.

"Clearly, the conversation is moving in the right direction," said John Chapin, a spokesman for Rowland. He said Rowland expects to receive more information about the merger from the bank executives.

In the meantime, staff members for the officials will work with the bank. The bank will also address credit availability and community involvement issues.

The members of Congress pronounced themselves satisfied with the promises -- for the moment. But in case things do not work out, they began the process of bringing pressure in the places where it could count.

They sent letters to Eugene A. Ludwig, comptroller of the currency, and to Greenspan.

In the Greenspan letter, Dodd, Lieberman and Kennelly explained that, not only would jobs be lost, but the merger would hurt the commercial real estate market, the property tax base, retailers and "other service providers that depend on financial services employees."

"At a time when the state is just beginning to shake off its economic misfortunes, the collateral impact of these jobs losses will be enormous," they said.

The Fleet/Shawmut application to merge needs approval from the Fed and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The Justice Department will also study the proposal for any antitrust implications.

Though members of Congress are not directly involved in the process, senators must approve appointments to the Fed's board of governors and to top posts at other banking agencies.

In addition, Dodd is general chairman of the Democratic National Committee and close to President Clinton. And, members of both chambers vote on legislation that could affect the banking industry.

The banks thus are trying hard to be good Washington as well as local citizens. Fleet Thursday hosted a Capitol Hill luncheon, scheduled before the merger was announced, to tout its year-old, $8 billion commitment to low- and moderate-income people and economically distressed communities.

Members of Congress at the luncheon listened as John P. Hamill, president of Fleet Bank of Massachusetts, and Agnes J. Bundy, director of corporate community development for Fleet, described the program. Hamill also put in a lengthy plug for the merger.

"The new Fleet will be uniquely positioned," he said. "It will be one of the top 10 banking companies in the country." The new Fleet Financial Group would rank ninth among banking companies.

Hamill explained to the audience that there was little to worry about since the banks' portfolios are "concentrated in New England and New York," and that, despite job losses, "After consolidation, we will continue to grow."

Attitudes at the luncheon, and around the Capitol, indicated Connecticut members of Congress are likely to fight a lonely battle if they wage war against the merger.

Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., said the pact "gives added strength to the economy of New England. In the end, we'll all be better off for it."

Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., the No. 3 Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, said he was concerned about whether credit would be readily available, particularly to small businesses, but did not seem alarmed by the merger.

"From our perspective, no, we're not concerned about the loss of jobs," he said.

But Murray and Alvord said they understood the concern in Connecticut, even though there was little they could do about it before the merger was announced.

"You cannot discuss it ahead of time," Murray said, or federal regulators could take legal action.