In the giddy aftermath of the 1980 election, when the victorious forces of Ronald Reagan were planning their assault on federal regulation, the Clean Air Act stood high on the list of targets.

The decade-old act, the granddaddy of environmental laws, beloved of conservation groups but a multibillion-dollar bane to business, was up for reauthorization in the first year of the new administration. To the deregulators, it was an oppressively stringent and expensive law, a towering symbol of the type of regulatory excess Reagan had sworn to eliminate.

Now, 18 months later, the massive rewrite of the act lies in a House committee like a beached whale, creating an unpleasant aroma for all concerned.

In the Senate, another version is moving somewhat more smoothly through committee, but there appears to be little push to bring the bill to the floor before the Senate adjourns for the Nov. 2 elections. "I made money betting we wouldn't get a bill out last year," said one Senate staff aide. "I think I'm going to make money this year, too."

Or as Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) puts it: "I just don't see the grounds of a consensus forming under us."


The White House finds itself in the politically awkward position of supporting the House version of the bill, put forward by Democrats, and counting on coal-state Democrats in the Senate to help thwart the bill written by Republicans.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which does not like the law but has continued to administer it since its expiration last September, is threatening to enforce it to the letter when tough pollution deadlines arrive Dec. 31. Some view this as a "double reverse" tactic to pressure Congress into passing a new law before the ax falls.

As if the legislative rewrite weren't causing domestic trouble enough, it has become colored by foreign policy concerns. The Canadian government, whose pleas for new measures to control acid rain have fallen on deaf diplomatic ears, has taken its concerns directly to the Hill in an intense and usual lobbying campaign.

All this maneuvering is taking place against the backdrop of an election year when polls are showing the public firmly opposed to weakening environmental protection laws, and apparently willing to back up its belief with votes.

The battle is a classic one, but the alliances forged this year are anything but classic. Labor has joined with industry to fight for a less restrictive law, citing the need to revive industry and create jobs. Environmentalists have joined forces with the "hook and bullet boys"--hunters and fishermen--to push for a more restrictive law, citing the need to protect natural resources. They are joined by groups representing the elderly and the medical professions, who are worried about the health effects of air pollutants.

One thing both sides agree on is that the Clean Air Act has cleaned the air, or at least kept it from getting much dirtier.

The amount of sulfur dioxide has dropped 40 percent over the last decade. Carbon monoxide has dropped 40 percent; particles of various kinds of dirt put into America's air have declined 20 percent.

Some of the progress may be a result of switching from dirtier to cleaner fuels and of decreased activity in bad economic times, but at the least the act allowed very large increases in the number of cars on the roads without equal increases in air pollution from them.

The question is whether the Clean Air Act, which affects virtually every industry and is so complex that it strains the seams of the political system through which it must pass, must be quite as pervasive and quite as stringent as it has been to accomplish what all sides see as a necessary goal.

The struggle in the House Energy and Commerce Committee has been the bitter center of the whole congressional battle. Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who represents part of Detroit, wants desperately to deliver relief from auto emission control to the auto industry. But building a coalition to do that has been a bit like working a Rubik's cube: when he has members in line on one issue, he turns the cube to find they disagree on something else.

Dingell's fragile coalition broke down last April when he lost a key vote and abruptly halted committee work. Action shifted behind closed doors, while his key adversary on the issue, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), was forced to watch from the sidelines.

"We've been frozen out," said Waxman, who chairs the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Clean Air Act and who has fought for strict environmental regulations.

While Dingell's behind-the-scenes wrangling has attracted the most attention, it is the action of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.) that has attracted the most criticism from industry and, privately, from the Reagan administration.

Stafford was instrumental in writing many of the environmental laws of the last decade, and he let it be known last year that he would not back off on his positions to accommodate the Republican White House. Industry lobbyists have been surprised and disappointed at the ease with which he has been able to get his way in committee.

"We see nothing coming out of the Senate that we could support," said William Megonnell, legislative director for Edison Electric Institute, a trade association of investor-owned utilities. "We're totally adverse to the Senate bill, and the crowning blow was the acid rain provision."

The acid rain provision, if enacted by Congress, would be an addition to the clean air statute. The Senate committee version would require 31 states, largely in the Midwest, to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by eight million tons in 12 years.

The action was based on the argument that a major cause of acid rain in the Northeast and Canada are the electric utilities in the Midwest, which burn local high-sulfur coal and use tall stacks to disperse the pollutants. That acid rain is said to be responsible for the large number of lakes, fish and plant life dying in the Northeast and Canada.

Industry, with the fervent backing of EPA, said there is no scientific evidence to support the contention that acid rain is caused by tall stacks on utilities in the Midwest, and that scientists cannot pinpoint the effects of the rain on plant and aquatic life.

But the issue poses a tough problem for Republicans from New York and New England, where the highly emotional nature of the issue could make supporting the Republican administration a political liability.

"Lou Harris has scared politicians," Megonnell said, referring to a Harris survey that found a large majority of Americans support spending more to clean up the air and that many would oppose candidates who did not agree with them.

But in the economically hard-pressed Midwest, the flip side of the acid rain question gets a good deal more play. In Indiana, for instance, officials fear the acid rain measure approved by Stafford's committee would mean not only higher utility rates but also an end to the $56 million-a-year coal industry, which supplies 5,000 jobs to a state with a 12.1 percent unemployment rate.

Indiana utilities traditionally have purchased local coal, but if tougher sulfur restrictions are adopted, they will switch to low-sulfur western coal, leaving local coal industry without a market. "Indiana is willing to take part of the blame, but it's unfair for the Midwest to take all the blame when no one knows the causes of the problem," said Mark Helmke, an aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).

Unlike the Senate committee, the House committee has a handful of midwestern members, and most House staffers predict that no such comparable amendment has a chance there.

In addition to the acid rain provision, Russian roulette with national treasures."

Under the Dingell proposal, he said, there were be nothing in law to prevent a clean area, such as a national park or seashore, from deteriorating all the way back to national air quality standards, which were set to accommodate the dirtiest areas. Wyden's own proposals on PSD would limit the time for issuing permits to between six and nine months and would allow states to "opt out" of the PSD program if they met a series of requirements aimed at assuring a high standard of pollution control.

In Stafford's Senate bill, the PSD program has been kept largely in place. In the House, it is one of those items on which Dingell has been forced to compromise.

Dingell is said to be willing to retain the PSD programs, with a proviso that states will drop out of them unless they specifically ask to be kept in. Wyden and others say that amounts to no compromise at all.

Another of the issues fought behind closed committee doors is on auto emissions. The Dingell bill would double the amount of emissions permitted from car and truck exhaust to 7 grams per mile of carbon monoxide and 2 grams per mile of nitrogen oxide.

According to EPA's Bennett, the difference of effect between the old law and the new proposals is almost negligible.

"If the difference is so small, you have to ask yourself why you're putting anything through this jolt. The manufacturers do tell us it will cost $500 million a year, so, yes, there is the cost issue. At the time when the auto economy is one of concern to the nation," she said.

But she also maintains that relaxing the standard may lower pollution. "You actually get lower emissions by designing for 7 then you can for 3.4," she said of the carbon monoxide standard, contending that pollution control devices put on the cars to achieve the less stringent 7 grams per mile fail less often than those made to achieve the more stringent 3.4 grams per mile.

Even General Motors disagrees with her on that one. Devices on GM's new cars already meet the 3.4 standard, according to a company spokesman, and the rate of failure is no worse than previous devices. He said Bennett's information was based on "old EPA data that's wrong."

The issue, he said, is not the effectiveness of the devices but their cost. He said the company hopes to save between $50 and $300 a car by taking off some of the pollution control equipment.

Wyden said such savings will do Detroit no good, noting that foreign car makers will get the same break. "You can have sympathy for the auto industry and its problems, but its problems don't relate to the Clean Air Act," he said.

The compromise that has been worked out in the House, according to several congressional sources, is to double the carbon monoxide standard but leave the nitrogen oxide standard unchanged. Several swing-voters are said to have agreed to this compromise.

But other issues remain and the ground keeps shifting day to day.

And, as a Republican staff aide put it: "The chances of getting a bill out this year get worse with every passing day, every day closer to the election without agreement."