A MAJOR obstacle to ending a decade of utter stalemate over clean-air law dissolved this week. Two leading congressmen on the Energy Committee - each key to a rival camp - settled on a surprise compromise on automobile emissions that was approved unanimously by the committee.
The agreement immediately improved the outlook for passage of a clean-air bill this year. The deal favored mostly the environmentalists, incorporating the stringent emissions standards similar to those of California.
Many more tough issues remain before the nation has a new clean air act. But Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, and several other key congressmen have agreed to abide by this compromise for the bill's entire journey through congress.
Mr. Dingell, chairman of the Energy Committee, hails from Detroit and has reliably represented the interests of automakers concerned about the costs of tighter emissions standards. He sponsored President Bush's proposed new Clean Air Act in the House.
Mr. Waxman is a subcommittee chairman and hails from smog-choked Los Angeles. He is a strong voice for environmentalism.
The two have been at loggerheads over clean air for at least eight years.
In recent weeks, however, Waxman won some key bouts in his subcommittee. He succeeded in striking out a provision that allowed automakers to meet emissions standards by averaging their fleets and in winning a requirement that cars carry canisters that absorb gasoline fumes.
Last Thursday, Dingell offered a deal. California and eight Northeastern states are moving to the stringent standards anyway. The proposed federal standards would at least give manufacturers more time to comply than do the California standards.
The auto industry finds little solace. General Motors called the deal ``an extreme which will bring virtually no significant benefits [over the Bush bill] but will mean huge costs to the consumer and high risks for the industry.''
Environmentalists see a major step forward. ``This is the first time in history that Congressman Dingell and Congressman Waxman have agreed on motor vehicle legislation,'' says S. William Becker, director of an association of state air pollution officials. ``It is a landmark agreement.''
The agreement is substantially more stringent on auto emissions than the standards that the White House proposed last summer, but the White House says it will support the deal.
The standards, if passed into law, will be phased in by 1995 or 1996. The Environmental Protection Agency is directed to study the cost and technical means of tightening standards by another 50 percent by 2006.
But environmentalists have clearly won the most and biggest battles so far in the forging of a new clean air act.
William Fay, director of a business coalition working to keep the costs of the clean air bill down, was surprised and concerned about the auto-emissions deal. ``I kind of feel like I'm building a house and the contractor keeps coming back with higher costs,'' he says.