Pressure to reshape the Clean Air Act in the Reagan administration mold before the 1982 election season has risen sharply in Congress, and key actors in both the House and the Senate are feeling the heat.
Ironically, the administration sees a Republican as its main problem in the Senate, which the GOP controls, and a Democrat among its main allies in the House, which is run by the theoretically hostile Democrats.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Republicans meet today with the problem senator, committee chairman Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), in an effort to show him the error of his ways. His committee staff has drafted a rewrite of the 1970 act that retains much of the existing law but loosens enough controls to be under fire from environmental groups.
But the administration and many of the committee Republicans think it does not go far enough and is "a thousand miles from being acceptable," in the words of an Environmental Protection Agency official.
The Republicans, according to a staff aide, plan to ask Stafford to include some of their concerns in the draft "in order to avoid too much blood on the floor during the markup" scheduled Nov. 3.
Stafford, however, has made it plain the draft is as far as he wants to go.
"He's willing to lose in a recorded vote on these issues, but he isn't going to back down any further in the preliminaries," said an aide. "That's what elections are for."
On the House side, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) has been holding detailed hearings in his Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment, much to the frustration of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who chairs the full committee.
Dingell is pushing strongly for Clean Air Act changes that would meet demands of the automobile industry in his district for some relief from exhaust-emissions controls. Industry spokesmen have said the controls are unnecessarily tough and expensive at a time of other massive troubles for them.
Vice President Bush met with the key actors last week to stress the administration's desire for legislation this year. That suits the auto manufacturers, who say they are direly in need of certainty very soon on the law they will have to consider in planning their new models.
Dingell is trying to help. He reportedly hinted to Waxman in the meeting with Bush that his full committee might take up the issue if the subcommittee does not show rapid signs of producing legislation.
Such a move would mean a major uproar in the House, where the Democrats are mindful of recent polls that show environmental cleanup and defense to have a massive public base of support. Environmentalists are considering delaying the whole debate in order to make it a political issue next year.
In fact, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. has indicated there will be plenty of time for oratory on the House floor when the Clean Air Act does come up. Nobody, of course, yet knows when that will be.