The Senate Appropriations Committee, bowing to the wishes of Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus, yesterday approved a $1.16 billion operating budget for the Environmental Protection Agency in fiscal 1984.
The total is $165 million more than the administration's original request but $200 million short of what a bipartisan group of senators argued was needed to restore the beleaguered agency's effectiveness. It is almost to the nickel what Ruckelshaus recommended in a letter Monday to Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman.
The committee also approved Ruckelshaus' request for $410 million for "Superfund" hazardous waste cleanup, $100 million more than President Reagan had asked.
Hours later, appearing before a congressional panel as a witness on pending legislation for the first time since his recent confirmation as EPA administrator, Ruckelshaus essentially supported the administration's proposals for change in the Clean Water Act.
Among some environmentalists and their allies on Capitol Hill, both moves were seen as setbacks.
Critics of administration policy at the EPA had hoped that Ruckelshaus would capitalize on widespread congressional support to recommend a larger increase in the EPA's budget, and would take the earliest opportunity to dissociate himself from what they see as the administration's desire to weaken provisions of the nation's major environmental laws.
Ruckelshaus' testimony on the Clean Water Act "looks very much like proposals from last year," said Polly Freeman of the Sierra Club.
However, Ruckelshaus' comments drew quick praise from the industry-backed National Environmental Development Association. "In our view, the environmental community is attempting to make a sacred cow out of the Clean Water Act," association spokesman Ray Durazo said.
In his letter to Stockman, Ruckelshaus said he believed the stepped-up funding, which amounts to a 21 percent increase over Reagan's request, was "necessary to fund an aggressive environmental cleanup effort."
Ruckelshaus had repeatedly refused to endorse congressional efforts to increase the EPA's budget, saying he needed time to do his own review. But he told Stockman that his review had gone far enough to identify "critical needs."
In addition to the extra Superfund money, he said he wanted to put $100 million more into state grants for pollution control and enforcement, $31 million into research and development and $34.5 million into additional personnel. Reagan had proposed cutting the EPA's staff by 450 in fiscal 1984. Ruckelshaus asked to restore those jobs and add 650.
Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) called the request "reasonable" considering it came "over the dead body of OMB."
But Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who offered an alternative amendment to give the agency its 1981 funding level of $1.35 billion, said the Ruckelshaus request would merely give the agency the equivalent of what it had in fiscal 1974.
"We need to give them enough money to enforce the laws on the books," Leahy said. "That request represents a lot of negotiation with OMB. I'd like to think we have a better grasp of what EPA needs than OMB does."
Garn, however, argued that the $165 million increase represents what Ruckelshaus thinks the agency can usefully absorb in one year, and the Senate owes it to him, as an "expression of faith," to approve his request.
"I've got a lot of respect for Mr. Ruckelshaus," Leahy responded. "But I've got even more respect for the environment of this country."
Despite Leahy's entreaties, his amendment lost, 14 to 12, after two expected allies, Sens. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) and Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), defected to Garn's side. Garn's amendment carried 19 to 0.
Disappointed supporters of a higher EPA budget said they will try again on the Senate floor. The House has approved an operating budget of $1.3 billion for the agency.
The EPA budget is part of a $54.3 billion appropriations bill that covers the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a variety of independent agencies, including the Veterans Administration.
Included in the bill approved yesterday is $8 billion in contract authority for assisted housing, about $4.5 billion more than the administration requested, but $4.6 billion less than the House approved. CAPTION: Picture, SEN. PATRICK J. LEAHY . . . failed to get budget of $1.35 billion.