Democrats jump on Bush's environmental rollbacks

Party sees appeal of issues to swing voters

April 22, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Let the Bush administration restudy what concentration of arsenic is acceptable in drinking water. One thing is clear: The issue has been very good for Democrats.

After three months of uncertainty over where to draw bright lines of opposition, congressional Democrats have found a rallying cry and gone on the offensive against President Bush for early environmental rollbacks.

Throughout the congressional recess, Democrats, from the party's presidential hopefuls to the most politically vulnerable House members, have struck the same themes, trying to use Bush's actions - including the decision to delay carrying out the Clinton administration's tougher arsenic standard - to undercut the president's image with moderates.

It is a concerted public relations campaign, amplified in television advertising by environmental advocacy groups, that is rising in a crescendo today, the 31st anniversary of Earth Day.

Some publicity is intended to put pressure on Republican moderates in Congress to help defeat such Bush efforts as his call to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.

But Democrats also have their eye on 2002, when control of the House and Senate is at stake. And gleeful party strategists say Bush has given them a way to appeal to the swing voters who will matter most: the suburban mothers and independents whom Bush courted with his emphasis on education.

"This is an issue where we can get some clear, obvious, verifiable separation from the Republicans," said James M. Jordan, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The Democratic assault has been building for weeks.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a possible presidential contender, told the Colorado Democratic Party late last month, "It is hard to accept that the Supreme Court has given us an administration that is content to allow one in every 100 Americans with certainty to get cancer from drinking water they have a right to believe is safe."

Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington plans to remind runners racing today to protest global warming that Bush has reversed himself on a pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

And ground zero in the environmental wars may have been the pump house of a closed arsenic-plagued well in Hopewell Borough, N.J., where Reps. Rush D. Holt and Frank Pallone Jr. spoke out last Wednesday against the arsenic rule rollback.

The well, after all, is in a swing state, not just any swing state but the home state of former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. And it is in Holt's congressional district - one of the most competitive House districts in the nation, encompassing Princeton University, new office complexes, farmland and suburban sprawl.

Holt, a former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, said he considered the environment and related concerns about suburban sprawl and open space part of a cluster of issues that had helped him prevail in an area long considered safely Republican.

And he said his constituents, including many Republicans, had taken notice of events in Washington. "Arsenic," he said. "That hit a nerve because arsenic sounds like poison." He added that a number of people who had voted for Bush had told him, "If I had known," or "I should have known."

Republican strategists say that issues such as tax cuts, education and energy will prove more important to voters in the long run than the environment and that in those districts where environmental concerns run high, moderate Republicans will have voting records that suit their constituents.

The White House has also moved fast to try to repair any political damage from a string of actions in March that included the rejection of the international Kyoto treaty on global warming.

Every day last week, senior administration officials participated in showy White House announcements to soften the president's environmental image.

But Democrats are not relenting. Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan contended in the Democrats' weekly radio address yesterday that Bush has sold out to big business on the most important environmental issues.

Bonior, the House minority whip, said those steps were not enough, criticizing the Bush administration for not releasing an Environmental Protection Agency report that finds cancer risks from exposure to dioxins may be significantly greater than previously thought.

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