The House yesterday reversed President Reagan's budget-cutting at the Environmental Protection Agency and voted to restore funding to pre-Reagan levels in what one House leader called "mouth-to-mouth resuscitation" for the troubled agency.
The House also voted for a year-long moratorium on penalties for violations of the Clear Air Act in what some members called an act of hyprocrisy by pro-environment lawmakers and others called "a reasonable safeguard against unreasonable administration action" to force weakening amendments in the legislation.
The actions came as the Democratic-controlled House began considering appropriations bills for the 1984 fiscal year by approving, 216 to 143, a $54.2 billion money measure for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and 17 independent agencies, including EPA.
The bill contains $9.5 billion more than Reagan wants, mostly for subsidized housing programs. But despite White House threats to veto budget-busting spending bills to impose discipline on Congress, the administration has not threatened to veto the housing legislation.
"This bill is not primary veto bait," said Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), although he added that the House-approved EPA funding "significantly damages the bill" in the administration's view.
In Reagan's third year of cost-cutting for the EPA, he had asked for $949 million in operating funds for the agency, which the House Appropriations Committee had increased by $134 million to somewhat more than $1 billion, or roughly the funding level for the current fiscal year.
But Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), backed by major environmental groups, said that was still not enough and proposed an extra $220 million, which the House approved, 200 to 167. Wirth's amendment would bring EPA funding to $1.3 billion, or roughly the agency's budget for fiscal 1981 before the Reagan administration took office.
"This is one of the key environmental votes of this Congress . . . . This is the first opportunity that we've had to undo some of the terrible damage that's been done at EPA," said Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) in arguing for Wirth's amendment.
Wirth's opponents, who included Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the EPA, argued that the House should stick with current funding levels until new EPA Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus has a chance to review the agency's budget.
"Give him a vote of confidence instead of a slap in the face," begged Rep. Bill Green (R-N.Y.), ranking Republican on Boland's subcommittee, who said Ruckelshaus had requested a few weeks' delay to review his budget as a matter of "personal courtesy."
But Interior Committee Chairman Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) said, "I think we'll help him, not hurt him, when we demonstrate how strongly this House supports environmental protection."
Wirth noted that any Ruckelshaus recommendations for increased EPA funding would have to be cleared by Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman.
"That's the same David Stockman that has ravaged the EPA for the last three years," Wirth said.
Boland, however, raised the possibility of a veto. If the bill is "loaded down with add-ons," he said, "we won't get a bill."
As the HUD bill came up on the floor, Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said the House plans to complete work on six of the 13 regular appropriations measures by the end of next week. At least two of the measures are threatened with presidential vetoes in their present form.
One of them, an $11.9 billion Treasury-Postal bill approved yesterday by the Appropriations Committee, includes $879 million to continue subsidized postal rates for bulk mailers, a figure the administration is seeking to reduce by $400 million.
It also would bar the administration from implementing proposed changes in civil service rules to link pay raises and promotions to performance as well as seniority.
Stockman said in a letter that he would "not recommend to the president that he sign this bill in its present form."
Stockman made a similar comment in reference to an appropriations bill for the State, Justice and Commerce departments that includes $1.3 billion in funds opposed by the administration for the Legal Services Corp., the Small Business Administration direct loan program, the Economic Development Administration and several other programs.
In the 227-to-136 vote on the clean air rules, the House sought to ban the EPA from imposing economic sanctions, such as halting highway funds or banning construction, on areas that failed to meet national air quality standards by the end of last year, as it has threatened to do. Instead, it would extend the deadline for compliance at least through the end of the 1984 fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, 1984.
The delay was proposed by Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Calif.), a conservative whose district is under the gun to meet air quality standards, and supported by some liberal Democrats who contended that the administration was using the threat of sanctions to force Congress into weakening the Clean Air Act. Some of these Democrats' districts also would be affected by the sanctions.
Among Washington-area legislators, only Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) voted for the increased EPA funding. Only Barnes and Rep. Beverly Byron (D-Md.) voted for suspending air pollution penalties.