WASHINGTON -- Prospects for completing a long-sought revision of the Clean Air Act this year rose yesterday when a congressional conference committee broke a logjam and agreed new proposals to enforce tougher auto emission standards and cleaner-burning fuels.
Congressional staff members were cautiously optimistic that the breakthrough would speed resolution of the remaining issues. But it seemed no one was willing to predict whether the committee would succeed in finishing the clean air package by Oct. 19, when Congress is scheduled to recess, or whether the conference would decide to return in November to complete its work.
"Every time a barrier is passed we have cause for hope," said a committee aide. "Everybody is fighting to get it done this year."
But Ed Barks, spokesman for the National Clean Air Coalition, a lobbying group that has been campaigning for new legislation, was less guarded.
"This makes a new Clean Air Act pretty much a foregone conclusion," he said.
Under the agreement reached yesterday, California -- the state with the most severe motor vehicle-smog problems -- would be empowered to impose tougher controls on tailpipe emissions, standards for cleaner, reformulated gasoline and requirements for company fleets to move toward vehicles powered by alternative fuels.
Standards for the rest of the country would be less stringent. But the act would allow individual states to voluntarily adopt the California standards.
The voluminous revision of the Clean Air Act, running to almost 700 pages, would be the first amendment of the legislation in 13
years. Senate and House conferees and staff have been struggling since July to consolidate the two versions of the legislation into one bill that can be sent to the White House for signature.
Unless they resolve the remaining disputes over the next fedays, the committee members may not have time to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the bill in time for final passage this year.
"This week is heartbreak hill for the clean air debate," said an aide to one of the conferees, Representative Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif.