WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. John Dingell, already an outspoken critic of Clinton administration plans to toughen air quality standards, vowed last week to lead a congressional effort to overturn the rules if they are imposed.
'I don't want to fight my president,' said the Michigan Democrat, who is in his 43rd year in the House of Representatives. But if the administration doesn't back off, 'I am prepared to go to war.'
The EPA has proposed tightening standards for ground-level ozone and for small particle emissions. But a broad coalition that includes the Big 3, other business and industry groups and state and local governments complains that the proposals would be economically devastating.
Dingell, now the senior minority member of the House Commerce Committee, is in a unique position to battle the proposals. He was chairman of the powerful panel when the federal Clean Air Act was last rewritten in 1990.
He was credited at the time with engineering compromises between competing interests and adding flexibility - as well as toughness - to the law. Thus, in effect, the EPA proposals he is fighting are based on a law he helped write.
DINGELL TALKS TO CLINTON
In a brief interview following an address Friday, June 13, to the National Association of Manufacturers, Dingell confirmed that he personally approached Clinton on the issue during a June 4 White House meeting on other matters.
'The president did indicate an awareness with the concerns of industry and, very truthfully, an awareness that these regulations require very careful review by the White House before promulgation,' Dingell said.
But Clinton did not promise significant changes or a shelving of the entire effort, as Dingell has requested.
Worse perhaps, in the veteran lawmaker's mind, the White House has not responded to a letter from 42 House Democrats asking for a meeting on ozone and particulate pollution. The letter was sent April 24.
'It makes me sad,' said Dingell, calculating that as many as 77 of the 206 House Democrats oppose the rules.
Dingell is also gearing up to fight administration plans for negotiating an international treaty on global warming that would include enforceable limits on carbon dioxide emissions in developed countries.
Many Republicans have also complained about the issues, but some seem content to let Democrats splinter on environmentalism. It is already becoming a likely dividing line between two would-be presidential successors, Vice President Al Gore and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.
Marchant Wentworth, environmental consultant to the American Lung Association, which has been leading the fight for tougher air quality standards, said there is a big difference between signing a letter to the White House and having to cast a vote in Congress.
That would be especially true, Wentworth said, if the question were couched as 'clean air for kids vs. smoke stacks.'
Still he acknowledged Dingell as a 'formidable' foe in the fight.
OUT OF EPA'S HANDS
Meanwhile, an EPA official who asked not to be named said the agency is not able to say when final ozone and particulate rules may be issued because 'we don't have control of this anymore. ... The whole administration is all over this rule.'
An order issued in 1994 by the U.S. District Court in Tucson, Ariz., gave the EPA until July 19 - next month - to set new standards for small particle pollution. The agency said it will issue ozone standards as well at that time.
EPA Administrator Carol Browner has said the burden of compliance would fall heaviest on large industrial and utility plants, not small businesses and individuals. The proposed rules would not impose new vehicle emission standards, but enforcement efforts could include limits on driving and requirements to keep vehicles tuned.