Washington — An ironic surprise awaits President-elect Ronald Reagan, who campaigned so caustically against federal environmental regulations, when he takes office next month.
His party's electoral gains will elevate to the chairmanship of the Senate Environment Committee a fellow Republican who is not your basic Business Roundtable-type, get-the-ecologists-off-our-backs conservative, but a born-again environmentalist.
"I'm an environmentalist at heart, and want to keep the basic [environmental] programs as much as possible," declares Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R) of Vermont.
As if to underscore his conviction, the senator sports an outdoorsy turtleneck knit shirt in preparation for a long week-end at home in Vermont, statistically the nation's most rural state and legislatively one of the most protective of its natural environment. Pictures of its pristine beauty line the walls of his Washington office.
When Republicans captured control of the Senate last month for the first time in a quarter of a century, Senator Stafford had the choice of chairing either the labor or the environment panel. He unhesitatingly picked the latter, explaining: "My first choice and prime interest is in the environment."
Hence an anomally. Although the incoming President and Republican Senate majority, being more conservative and business-oriented, are expected to be less sympathetic to environmental causes, the new GOP chairman of the Senate committee shapes up as more environmentally minded than his Democratic predecessor.
Senator Stafford's overall rating from the League of Conservation Voters during his 10 years in the Senate (64 percent) is 24 points higher over the same period than that of Sen. Jennings Randolph (D) of West Virginia, the man who has chaired the environment panel for the past 14 years. In the current congress, Republican Stafford scores 71 percent, Democrat Randolph 49 percent.
The Vermonter is in many striking ways a sort of Republican Edmund S. Muskie. He and Mr. Muskie, the current secretary of state who as a senator from Maine fathered most of the nation's landmark antipollution laws, have been dubbed "New England twins."
They were born within a year of each other in rural towns in the far Northeastern stretches of the country; went into law practice; served in the Navy during World War II; became governors of their states; then, just two years apart, were elected to Congress.
Stafford credits Muskie with awakening his interest in the environment.
"I got it the hard way," he says, the granitelike seriousness of his ruddy face dissolving in a smile and a twinkle of his blue eyes.
When he became the committee's senior republican four years ago and offered his junior colleagues their choice of subcommittee ranking memberships, he recalls, there were no takers for the environmental pollution subcommittee, then chaired by Muskie. So he took it himself.
"I began working closely with Ed Muskie," he says, "and we found that we worked well together." So well, in fact, that the two became fast friends and rarely disagreed thereafter on a consequential environmental issue.
With Muskie now at the State Department, his longtime ally often seems committed to keeping the legislative legacy alive.
"I see no mandate [in the election returns] to gut the clean-air or clean-water laws," he insists. "I think the American public wants the basic programs to continue."
Unalarmed by Reagan's campaign attacks on some of the environmental laws that he helped enact -- and the candidate's comments about trees as sources of pollution and ocean oil leaks as healthful -- Stafford says the President-elect's more moderate statements and his "good" environmental record while governor of California suggest that he will not seek to "dismember" federal antipollution programs.
The first test may arise over the Clean Air Act of 1970, a law criticized by Reagan as an obstacle to industrial growth, which comes up for review next year.
The man who will preside over the Senate examination vows to defend the law's basic structure.
"We'll consider any changes that the new administration may want," he says. "If it can be demonstrated to the committee that changes are needed, I'll be prepared to support them. But I'm not prepared to take a meat tax to the program."
One modification to which he says he is receptive is easing air-quality restrictions that may impede the development of synthetic fuels.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the nation's antipollution enforcer, was another target of Reagan campaign barbs. But Stafford says he has no personal desire to overhaul it.
While his committee may seem destined to spend much of its time on the defensive, the chairman-to-be nevertheless entertains the idea of possible environmental initiatives.
If pending legislation creating a $1.6 billion "superfund" to clean up chemical contamination becomes law this month, he would like the new Congress to extend its coverage to oil spills.
He might even be able to win backing for a long crusade close to the heart of the senior senator from a state that has virtually rid its highways of billboards: reviving the moribund federal billboard control law by appropriating money for the now-unfunded program.