CAROL BROWNER, administrator of the embattled Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has had no illusions about the forces she's confronting.
GOP critics have vilified the EPA as the ''Gestapo of government'' and a ''job-killing agency'' - this for a department that a year ago was slated to join the Cabinet.
But when the Republican-ruled House voted last week to slash Ms. Browner's $7.2 billion budget by one-third and take 18 specific steps to curb or eliminate its enforcement powers, she became alarmed over ''the concerted, orchestrated assault on how we do our job.''
The House proposals are the biggest challenge to government as guardian of environmental protection and safety since federal authorities first assumed the role 25 years ago.
Browner has picked up the GOP gauntlet, giving media interviews and lobbying hard in the Senate to save her agency. She takes some comfort in President Clinton's vow to use his veto power ''the minute this polluters' protection act hits my desk.'' Some Republican senators are also concerned that the House has gone too far. But Browner claims she has been shut out of the congressional debate.
Her repeated efforts to meet with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia have failed. ''There's no genuine willingness on the part of the leadership and its following to have an honest debate, because they are beholden to special interests. It is lobbying at its most successful, its most triumphant,'' she says.
At her threadbare suite of offices in the nondescript EPA headquarters in Washington, Browner acknowledges that the EPA, for many lawmakers, epitomizes federal intrusion into business. The agency's 18,600 employees are charged with enforcing regulations ranging from drinking-water quality to nuclear-waste cleanup to pollution-control devices on cars.
The House Republicans' move to pare down the EPA is the clearest repudiation of big government - proposed EPA budget cuts are the biggest for any targeted federal agency. Republicans and business groups say it is time to redress the balance between economic and environmental interests. But Browner argues that the cuts are being pushed by one of the most effective special-interest campaigns in the 104th Congress.
AMERICAN businesses are sparing no expense in trying to get regulatory relief from their burdensome compliance costs. They spend millions of dollars each year to meet EPA regulations, a sum they say is steadily climbing and puts them at a disadvantage in competing with largely unregulated foreign firms.
In recent weeks, the halls of the Capitol have been packed with lobbyists from the nation's most powerful oil and gas companies, chemicals manufacturers, pharmaceutical firms, real estate developers, and others who recognize a chance to cut their costs by attacking the EPA bureaucracy.
''This is not about reform, this is about shutting the system down,'' asserts Browner.
Her comments are punctuated by stark warnings to the American public. If the House bill comes to pass, she says, beachgoers enjoying the ocean surf, and those fishing and boating in the country's thousands of rivers and lakes, will see more raw sewage, chemical discharge, and medical waste contaminating their waters. The 2,279 beach closings EPA recorded last year will multiply in years to come, she predicts.
But business leaders reject the Clinton administration's contention that the reformers seek a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach, damaging to the environment.
''Our basic view is not to abolish the agency but to require it to develop a better system of benefit-cost analysis,'' says John Snow, chief executive of CSX Corporation and chairman of the Business Roundtable, the nation's premier advocacy group for business. ''The best-case scenario is that a reformed, rational EPA use good science and apply market principles to its regulations,'' he says.
Mr. Snow and other US industry colleagues are asking for the EPA to restrict its policies to those that ''do more public good than harm,'' those that don't eat too much into business's bottom line.
''We do cost-benefit analyses on all our major rules,'' responds Browner. But doing such time-consuming analysis before taking any action, she says, ''means we would lose our preventative capacity - we might as well take the word 'protection' out of our name.''
''When we took the lead out of gasoline 20 years ago,'' Browner continues, ''we didn't know with numeric certainty what the cost-benefit would be. What we knew was that children were at risk. Rather than taking 10 years to compile data, we became pro-active - and 10 years into this action we confirmed that the benefits justified the cost.''
While Snow concedes the recently passed House bill ''has gone too far'' in stripping the EPA of oversight and enforcement, he strongly objects to claims that reforming environmental regulations mean a serious set-back for safety and protection of ecology.
''We [the US railroad industry] have a very close working relationship with the chemical industry [whose products CSX and other lines transport] to minimize risks [of spills, derailments, and other mishaps that lead to contamination]. These [accidents and regulations] cost us enormously,'' Snow says ''What the liberal left fails to understand is that business has incentives to engage in safety and environmental policies - it's in our own self-interest.''
Browner agrees, but she doubts whether the private sector has the necessary financing or discipline to prevent or redress pollution.
The House bill denies government help that smaller firms need to develop cutting-edge solutions to pollution prevention, she says. It would cut the $127 million the Clinton budget proposes to develop cleaner technology.
But the agency is also under assault from the left. Debra Knopman, former deputy assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of Interior, left the Clinton administration after she became fed up with EPA's costly regulations that ''foster adversarial rather than consensual relations'' between environmentalists and business.''
Now at the left-leaning Progressive Foundation, Ms. Knopman is working to decentralize environmental policy.
She finds support from critics who charge that EPA bureaucracy is bloated, slow, and inept at cleaning up the nation's most critical of hazardous-waste sites. By contrast, state agencies, once ill-equipped to manage waste-treatment programs, are today more sophisticated in identifying trouble areas and forcing compliance with environmental mandates. New Jersey, home to some of the nation's oldest industrial polluters, has invested heavily in its own Department of Environmental Protection.
States are battling for more control. Last week, state leaders passed a host of environmental initiatives at their annual National Governors' Association conference in Vermont - moves Browner says she welcomes. They supported speedy reauthorization of the Clean Water Act, but greater state and local power in implementing it; state management of the Superfund cleanup program; and state determination of whether transportation projects conform to state air quality plans.
What irks Browner the most in the current debate is what she says is the perception that ''the job's done on environmental protection - that government doesn't have a role to play. It's ludicrous to believe that without any government leadership you can expect private industry to take responsibility. If history's any guide, the answer is no, it will not.''
THE multibillion-dollar Superfund, a government-led program to clean up hazardous- waste sites, is a harsh lesson in the ''cost of dealing with [environmental problems] after the fact. The cost can be far greater than actually dealing with it in the present.''
In 1994, according to EPA studies, almost one third of all Americans drank tap water from a system that had at least one public-health violation in 1993. The House bill would eliminate government funds to monitor pollution levels in the rivers and lakes that become US tap water.
The Senate is due to take up the EPA's future when it returns in September. While Browner has been busy helping Senate Democrats draft a package of proposals to reform the EPA, she also hopes to get Republican leaders on board.
Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, ''has had a very important voice in the regulatory reform debate,'' says Browner. ''The Senate has an opportunity to be a moderating influence on the House extremism, and that's largely because of John Chafee. Even [Senate majority leader Bob] Dole doesn't think the Senate will go as far [as the House]. Even he recognizes its extreme nature.''