House GOP backs away from curbs on the EPA 63 Republicans desert ranks to preserve federal safeguards

November 03, 1995|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Republican-led House yesterday sharply repudiated a bid to curb enforcement of environmental laws in a vote that signaled growing GOP discomfort with charges that it wants to dismantle those protections.

By a vote of 227-194, the House disavowed a package of spending bill amendments approved this year that would block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating a broad range of pollutants, including raw sewage in storm water, toxic ,, emissions from oil refineries, arsenic in drinking water and cancer-causing pesticides in food.

Sixty-three Republicans joined with most of the Democratic minority to defeat the measure -- 13 more than voted against the restrictions on the EPA when they were added to the bill last summer.

"This was a very symbolic vote -- a powerful symbol" that the GOP won't let the party's anti-regulatory zeal go too far, said Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a leader of an expanding band of "green" Republicans. Three of Maryland's four Republicans voted against the restrictions, as did all four Maryland Democrats.

While House GOP leaders acknowledge that they are losing a public relations war on environmental issues, efforts to recast their image may focus less on softening policies than on finding better ways to explain them.

"The PR campaign against us has been unbelievable -- it's part of the jihad by environmental extremists," said John Feehrey, a spokesman for Majority Whip Tom Delay. The Texas Republican has been leading the drive to curb the EPA, which he has likened to the "Gestapo."

Concerns about stiffer EPA requirements for auto emissions testing played a big role in the decision by Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican, to vote to restrict the EPA.

"People here are up in arms about that," Mr. Bartlett said of his Western Maryland district. "I consider myself a strong environmentalist, but my concern is regulatory excess."

Yesterday's vote follows a trend developing since last summer of moderate Republicans -- particularly those representing ecologically sensitive districts -- joining with Democrats to resist bids by GOP colleagues to undo environmental protections they say tread on business and property rights.

House GOP leaders -- who with the exception of Mr. Delay made TTC no effort to preserve the restrictions on the EPA yesterday -- say they haven't given enough attention to the environment as a political issue. Part of the problem, some say, is that hard-line opponents of government regulation were allowed to press their objectives while the leadership was focused on issues such as balancing the budget.

"We haven't dealt with the environmental issues in a comprehensive way -- it's been single shot -- and that's opened us up to a lot of criticism," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference, the GOP group charged with developing the party message.

As part of a counter-offensive, Mr. Boehner's group is circulating a memorandum advising Republican House members on how to improve their image on environmental issues. Suggestions include sponsoring tree plantings, taking part in Earth Day celebrations, handing out conservation awards and joining a highway cleanup.

"The time to act is now," the memo says. "In order to build credibility you must engage this agenda before your opponents can label your efforts 'craven, election-year gimmicks.' "

Polls show strong public opposition to such GOP initiatives as restricting protections of the Endangered Species Act; expanding logging, mining and ranching on public lands; and opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas exploration.

Environmental activists held a rally on the Capitol steps Wednesday to present to the Congress what participants said were petitions signed by 1.2 million voters who oppose any rollback of environmental protections.

"People are getting killed at home for voting for these things," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, a New York Republican who led yesterday's fight against the restrictions on the EPA.

President Clinton, whose pollsters tell him that protecting the environment can be an effective way to distinguish himself from the GOP, has been fanning that opposition by labeling the Republicans as extremists.

After yesterday's vote, Mr. Clinton called on Congress to make ++ further improvements in the bill by adding more money for the EPA budget, which would be cut by 34 percent in the House version and 23 percent under a Senate plan.

Even under the Senate bill, which is favored by House GOP moderates, Maryland officials say hazardous waste cleanups and Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts could be slowed. Both versions limit EPA authority to regulate development of wetlands and automobile-related air pollution.

Despite the vote, the GOP majority in Congress seems determined to loosen the federal government's regulatory grip.

But Mr. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who was part of a successful effort last month to expand protections against overfishing in coastal waters, said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the tide is turning away from his colleagues' initial impulse to simply scuttle most federal regulation.

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