It's tough to find a legislator here who doesn't proclaim a love for clean air. But one month into the legislative session, the state's proposed auto emission program is under serious attack from several quarters.

The program, which is required under federal law, would force 1.8 million Maryland motorists to pay $9 each year to have their car exhaust checked.

Fiscal conservatives don't like the cost of the program. States-rights advocates don't like the federal government's threats to withhold money unless the program is adopted. Other legislators complain about the yearly cost to the taxpayer.

"Virtually no one is saying that the program doesn't work," said Thomas Cackette, inspection maintanence program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency. "People are arguing about state and federal responsibility for clean air, and about having the federal government push programs down their throat."

The program's critics have combined to create a powerful drive to repeal the emission program 10 months before it is scheduled to begin on Jan. 1, 1983. The repeal efforts have sent legislative leaders scrambling for a compromise that would be acceptable to the program's opponents and to the federal environmental authorities.

"I frankly think it's an uphill battle to retain the program," conceded House Majority Leader Donald Robertson (D-Montgomery).

The debate over this antipollution program has emerged here and in statehouses across the country as a replay of the clean air debates of a decade ago.

To Gov. Harry Hughes, the program represents a public policy commitment to clean up the air and the only way the state can avert a cutoff of $200 million in federal highway funds.

To Sen. Victor Cushwa (D-Washington County), a self-described "redneck" from the western end of the state where the air is cleaner, the program is "asinine." "It's a rip-off of the taxpayers of Maryland," he said.

To Del. V. Lanny Harchenhorn (R-Carroll and Frederick), a portly Republican believer in state's rights, the emissions program represents the ultimate intrusion of government into private life. "These federal programs just don't work," he said. "I'm a Republican because I believe in the party's philosophy of individuals acting alone, through their Lions Clubs and church groups, as opposed to government action."

To Cackette, the EPA official in charge of the state's programs, emission inspections represent a state's legal responsibility. "We intend to enforce the law," he declared, even while conceding that Congress appears poised to gut it.

The emission programs were required by the 1977 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act, a sweeping environmental package that prompted a decade-long clean-up. Under those amendments, 37 polluted metropolitan areas--including Baltimore and the Washington suburbs--were given until 1982 to meet federal air quality standards. That deadline was extended until 1987 for states that agreed to impose mandatory emission inspections.

The inspections are required for all vehicles under 6,500 pounds, except those more than 12 years old. Trucks are exempt for two reasons: most large trucks are diesel powered and including trucks would require larger, more costly inspection stations.

"The purpose of the inspections was to help meet an air-quality standard to protect the public health," said George Ferrari, director of the federally funded Maryland Air Management Service. "If we do not meet the standard, people will get sick. Unfortunately, the health issue seems to have gotten lost in the sanctions debate."

Under the law, the federal government can hold up U.S. highway funds and sewer grants to states that are reluctant to begin emission programs. The threat was carried out in California, which lost about $350 million in highway funds, and for one metropolitan area of Kentucky. In Pennsylvania, where the General Assembly stalled its implementation of an inspections program, a citizens environmental group sued. A federal judge ordered the state's highway funds suspended last month until state officials comply with the program.

Maryland's transportation secretary, Lowell Bridwell, said the state could lose up to $200 million in federal highway funds, which includes all of the state's federal transportation revenues except those funds specifically earmarked for mass transit or safety-related projects. "Repeal would be a violation of the law, and would almost certainly result in sanctions," he said.

But some legislators, sensing a changing mood in Washington, find the threat less ominous from a White House that has targeted the Clean Air Act as excessive and inflationary.

However, to repeal the emission program law now and hope that Congress changes the Clean Air Act entails what legislative staff researcher Donovan Peeters called "a high stakes poker game" with a "multimillion-dollar risk."

Other states are taking the same risk, hoping that Reagan's EPA will not follow the law. Of the 29 states required to enact inspection programs, EPA's Cackette lists a dozen states that either missed their January 1982 start-up date or are delaying programs that are scheduled to begin next year.

"When the amendment was first passed and the Carter administration was pushing the program quite hard, 28 state legislatures sat down and approved programs," Cackette said. "Now the desire to stall is greater."

While that desire stems primarily from a wait-and-see attitude directed at the federal level, the delay also reflects a shift in national attitudes. In one sense, the massive clean-up spawned by greater environmental awareness in the 1970s has become a victim of its own success. Since hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide in the air has been reduced dramatically over the last decade, critics, including President Reagan, say that pollution has been substantially controlled.

"If there was ever a need for this type of thing, it was probably back in the early 1970s," said Del. Harchenhorn. "Now the problem has been taken care of by technology."

Others strongly disagree. "It's an emotional question that reaches its crescendo in an election year," said Del. Steven V. Sklar (D-Baltimore). "I'm not crazy about the program either. But I'm also not crazy about the hot summer days in traffic in Baltimore."