Congress huffing and puffing over Clean Air Act as elections near

Absorbed in budget problems and deficit worries, Congress has had little time to focus on one of the public's favorite issues, clean air.

Although the Clean Air Act was due for reauthorizing last fall, neither house has yet passed a bill. And with election year campaigns coming up, the act is already caught up in political huffing and puffing.

On one side are business supporters who blame the Clean Air Act for putting industry in a straitjacket of regulations. They hold up the beleaguered automobile companies as victims of antipollution overkill.

On the other side are environmentalists who voice alarm at attempts to weaken the act with amendments they say would mean dirtier air for Americans.

Caught in the middle are the labor unions. Some, worried about losing jobs, side with industry, while those unions more concerned about health and safety issues have joined the environmentalists.

So far the pro-industry forces have the edge. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce is now considering a Clean Air Act overhaul that has the warm approval of virtually all of the business community.

''It affords deserved relief to the auto industry,'' says committte chairman John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan, whose state has been hardest hit by carmaker layoffs. Mr. Dingell ticks off the names of other industries that would also be helped by the amendments he has already steered through a subcommittee.

His chief adversary in the clean air battle, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D) of California, has denounced the proposed changes in the Clean Air Act as a ''crusade by the auto industry to lash out at whatever it can lash out at.'' Mr. Waxman comes from the state that is perhaps most concerned about air pollution, and one of the least hit by automobile factory layoffs.

The auto industry's ''economic problems are not due to the Clean Air Act,'' charges Waxman. ''They are due to the economy, to competition, and to bad management.''

Waxman maintains that the big money of pro-industry political action committees and lobbyists has won the first round in the Clean Air Act dispute in the House.

Industry spokesmen express widespread satisfaction with the Dingell-backed reforms. Among the changes they say would help business are:

* A shorter, faster process for permits to build new plants.

* Extending deadlines until as late as 1993, when localities must meet national air quality standards. (All communities are supposed to meet those standards by the end of this year under current law, but many areas lag far behind in cleaning up their air.)

* Returning to 1980 standards for antipollution devices on new automobiles, a change that would save $80 to $300 per car.

''We're very pleased with what came out,'' says Al Fry, consultant to the Business Roundtable, a group of top corporate leaders. Mr. Fry concedes that the Clean Air Act is ''not the major impediment to modernization and growth,'' but he says that it is an obstacle. ''If we can get the Clean Air Act changed, it may get easier to get new permits and plants on line.''

R. T. Kingman, Washington spokesman for General Motors Corporation, says that the savings per car from a new Clean Air Act would not pull his company out of its decline. But he says the proposed standards would give GM more ''engineering flexibility.''

Members of the National Clean Air Coalition charge that the proposed changes would be ''drastic'' for the environment. David Hawkins, a former administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, has said of the House bill, ''All we have left is the core of the act.''

But even business has one complaint: Congress still has not completed action. The bill must win approval in the Dingell committee and then go to the floor, and that could take months.

On the Senate side, action has been even slower. The Environment and Public Works Committee is hammering out a bill much less friendly to industry. Feuding between industry and environmentalist forces in that committee has reached such a level of acrimony that any action at all will be difficult.

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