Rep. Elliott Harris Levitas (D-Ga.) has never been very popular in the environmental community, but he has built a career around the principle that Congress should have the right to challenge a president's every action.

For years, Levitas has been leading a crusade for the so-called legislative veto, churning out amendments that allow him and his 534 colleagues to reject any federal rule or regulation, whether imposed by a high White House official or a low-level bureaucrat.

So when his subcommittee found itself locked in a constitutional confrontation over subpoenaed Environmental Protection Agency documents, it was an issue made to order for Levitas.

"I don't start off saying I'm going to be the guardian of the legislative prerogatives of the Republic," said Levitas, 52, "but that's the way it turns out."

Whether he is playing paddle ball in the House gymnasium or hardball with administration negotiators, Levitas pronounced Luh-VIT-us plays to win. Few who know him were surprised when the White House finally agreed Friday night to provide him with complete access to the disputed documents on hazardous waste.

Even as he shuttled between television interviews over the weekend, Levitas was restrained in his victory, mindful of charges that he is on a fishing expedition at EPA and concerned mainly with reeling in publicity.

"I know how to get headlines if I want to," Levitas said. "I know how to say outrageous things at a committee hearing. But I've gone out of my way to avoid sensationalizing this matter.

"I'm very concerned about the 'Superfund' program. If I am seen as driven by partisan politics, or environmental extremists or personal aggrandizement, then my credibility is destroyed."

Still, Levitas has been known to call reporters occasionally as he gears up for a hearing.

As chairman of the Public Works subcommittee on investigation and oversight, he has castigated the Food and Drug Administration for emitting toxic fumes from a Capitol Hill laboratory. He has accused the General Services Administration of arranging a land deal just to benefit the Marriott Corp. But he has left intact a pork-barrel process that allows favored House members to arrange for federal buildings in their home districts.

The son of European immigrants, Levitas said he ventured into politics under the Jewish tradition of giving something back to the community that nurtured him. A Rhodes scholar and attorney, he gained a decidedly liberal reputation as a Georgia legislator. After going to Congress with the Watergate class of 1974, however, he grew more conservative as his Atlanta district became more white and suburban.

Levitas was an early supporter of fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter but also voted for much of President Reagan's economic program in 1981.

"I happen to agree with Reagan that government has grown far too big and at too fast a pace," he said.

But Levitas said both administrations shared an "arrogance" toward Congress, an attitude he has tried to rectify with his campaign for a legislative veto.

This strong anti-government theme that politicians and not unelected bureaucrats should decide regulatory policy plays well back home and in the business community. "Elliott is very perceptive in picking issues that are almost ripe," a friend said, "and he's patient enough to ripen them."

By that standard, the EPA Superfund controversy is about ready to be plucked off the vine.

"A lot of people think our getting these records is the end of the story," Levitas said with a smile. "It's just the beginning."