Look for GOP Politicos To Start Hugging Trees

THIS won't be a weekend of typical constituent services for members of Congress heading home. Instead of holding town meetings, many will be out planting trees, combing beaches, and petting animals at local zoos.

As the nation gears up for Earth Day celebrations next week, politicians - especially Republicans - see an important opportunity to spruce up their environmental credentials in an election year when many voters view the 104th Congress as the most antigreen legislature in a generation.

In the past year, the Republican-controlled Congress has voted on legislation either as bold as the Grand Coulee Dam or as obscure as a California condor in an attempt to soften some of the nation's broadest environmental statutes. Bills have sought to increase logging, ban new listings of endangered species, and limit the ability of federal agencies - especially the Environmental Protection Agency - to enact new regulations.

GOP lawmakers argue they are only trying to rein in a process that has veered out of control and provide sensible relief to business and property owners. But even House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia has admitted that Republicans may have overreached and has urged GOP members to use Earth Day as an opportunity to cloak the party in a greener hue.

Environmentalists are skeptical, and Democrats see an opportunity.

"As we celebrate Earth Day in 1996, we will be inundated with photo ops of Congress members pretending to be environmentalists by planting seedlings or visiting beach cleanups," says Peter Kostmayer, executive director of Zero Population Growth. "What we need to be watching, however, is these members abdicating their responsibility and ignoring reality as they vote against clean air, clean water, and national parks."

President Clinton, seizing on GOP initiatives during the past 18 months, established the environment as a battleground election issue in his State of Union address back in January: "Lobbyists for polluters have been allowed to write their own loopholes into bill to weaken laws that protect the health and safety of our children.... I challenge Congress to reexamine those policies and reverse them."

Democrats have since stepped up their attacks on GOP proposals. Mr. Clinton traveled to New Jersey last month to underscore the need for more aggressive action on toxic-waste cleanup at Superfund sites. Democrats claim the GOP would cut Superfund money by roughly 25 percent in 1997, a charge Republicans deny.

This week, Vice President Al Gore threatened that the administration would veto a major spending bill unless Republicans withdrew what he called harmful environmental legislation. The $160 billion bill to fund nine Cabinet agencies through the current budget year includes riders that could reduce protection of endangered species, open federal forests in Alaska to increased salvage logging, and prevent the National Park Service from fully protecting a California desert park.

In a sign of how eager Republicans are to avoid further political damage on environmental issues, Speaker Gingrich hinted he might eliminate the riders. In earlier moves designed to shore up the party's green image, Gingrich formed an Environmental Task Force to create a new GOP environmental agenda. The committee, however, has been cautiously received by environmentalists. Amid the Earth Day rallies planned for this weekend and next week, lawmakers will try to appear in step. The House will consider two bills that should raise little ruckus: a battery recycling bill and a coastal-zone management bill. But the Senate could raise eyebrows among green advocates when a committee considers a bill to increase salvage logging in the Northwest.

After the saplings are snug in new peat, it's unclear whether the political posturing will have much effect on the November elections.

A survey taken in California last month, for example, showed that 72 percent of respondents thought President Clinton was more apt to protect the environment than Sen. Bob Dole. But Democrats traditionally poll better on environmental issues. The poll gave no indication that voters would chose a candidate based solely on those issues.

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