Senators trying to rewrite the Clean Air Act in committee bogged down completely yesterday, leading all sides to agree that there is absolutely no chance for action this year.
That means the complex 1970 act is certain to be an issue in next year's elections and harder than ever to deal with, an outcome the senators had all hoped to avoid.
"At least we'll see if it really is a voting issue," said one staff aide.
Some conservative Republicans have reportedly given up on trying to loosen the air pollution law through the Environment and Public Works Committee, where the votes so far have mostly tightened it up. Instead, according to this theory, lobbyists hoping for significant change are quietly planning floor amendments that could mean a bruising debate when the bill finally emerges.
Now, however, that will probably not occur until well into the new year. Staff members said after yesterday's session that the committee will be lucky to finish two of its seven agenda items by Christmas.
Auto manufacturers are particularly disappointed at the slow pace, having pressed Congress for some firm guidance on the shape of the act for use in planning future model designs.
The committee made its first stab at dealing with that yesterday as Sen. Steve Symms (R-Idaho) offered an amendment, supported by the Reagan administration, to loosen the carbon monoxide emission limit from the current 3.4 grams per mile to 7.0 grams. He said it could save the ailing auto industry $600 million per year while causing "no significant difference" in air quality.
The change was proposed by the National Commission on Air Quality as part of an overall package, but Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who chaired that commission, said he could not vote for Symms' amendment unless the whole package were adopted. There was no action.
The committee spent most of the session rehashing the meaning of its 13-to-0 vote last week that wrote pollution standards for light-duty trucks.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) summed up the debate: "We all have a great desire to look like we know what the hell we're doing, and I must admit it's extremely difficult. This issue is an amorphous botch."
The discussion exasperated Hart, who finally protested that industry lobbyists had apparently been working overtime to get the vote reconsidered. "At this rate we'll be here until a year from Christmas," he said.
Further time elapsed as several senators expressed dismay at Hart's remarks, but nobody proposed a recount. By then it was too late to do much else.
The committee's snail-like progress has been supersonic compared to the pace in the House, where subcommittee hearings continue and no bill or markup session is anywhere in sight. Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) has made no secret of his pleasure at the prospect of an extended debate sometime during the middle of the election season.