THE recent breaking of ranks by some House Republicans concerned about maintaining strong environmental safeguards says a lot about the continuing political potency of this issue.
These Republicans, such as Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) of New York, didn't prevail. Their party's leadership managed to squeak through a package of measures that would slash Environmental Protection Agency funds by a third. But their showing of green hinted a welcome shift in the congressional winds.
The moderate Republicans who balked at industry-backed whacks in environmental enforcement have it right both on principle and politically. According to surveys, the American public has never flagged over the past three decades in its support for cleaning up the nation's water and air. Significant numbers of voters will be repelled by the anti-environment tack taken by the House's GOP majority. President Clinton knows this, and is taking every opportunity to denounce the Republican "polluter protection" legislation and promise a veto. If he succeeds in framing the issue this way, he could have a winner going into '96.
While the public assigns high value to a clean environment, surveys also indicate some lowering of anxiety about the hazards posed by pollution. People realize that a lot has already been done to purify air and water. They may be more inclined to listen when someone says it's time to ease up a bit.
The House legislation would ease things more than a bit. Perhaps it was just intended to put down a political marker and force reconsideration of a broad range of environmental rules. But it could also mark the GOP as way out in right field on this issue.