Having lobbied aggressively against a plan to put anti-drinking messages in the government's ad campaign against illegal drugs, the beer industry's top lobbyist in Washington was still nervous. On the eve of a critical Senate vote, David Rehr sat up in bed and thought to himself: "What else can I do to kill this thing?"

Rehr's wife told him to go back to sleep, and for good reason: Despite emotional appeals by anti-drinking advocates, the Senate easily swatted back the proposal. The victory, followed by a similar result in the House Appropriations Committee last week, showed the tremendous political leverage the alcohol lobby can exert in a short period of time.

In a little-noticed battle, the deep-pocketed beer industry trumped Mothers Against Drunk Driving, its allies and a seemingly sympathetic cause with a relentless, sophisticated lobbying campaign.

"I guess this was a real experience in how powerful outside interests can be, regardless of the merits of the case," said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), sponsor of the unsuccessful campaign to target underage drinking.

Rehr, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Beer Wholesalers Association, who did not want beer identified in the public's mind with illegal drugs, preferred to trumpet a different lesson: "My bottom line on this is that good policy prevails."

Whatever the merits, the battle highlighted the kinds of policy battles now raging in Congress, as both chambers work through the 13 spending bills that finance the daily operations of the federal government. These must-pass bills frequently serve as the vehicle for legislative initiatives that would not otherwise see the light of day.

Certainly Roybal-Allard, who had studied heroin addiction and counseled drunk drivers before entering politics, saw an opening to make an impact this summer as the House Appropriations Committee considered an annual bill to fund the Treasury Department and Postal Service.

Although Roybal-Allard is new to the appropriations process--she just won a coveted seat on the panel this year--she is far from a political novice. The daughter of a former congressman, Roybal-Allard served six years in the California legislature before coming to Congress in 1995.

She was intrigued by testimony this spring about a $1 billion, five-year advertising campaign by the Office of National Drug Control Policy against illegal drug use. During a routine oversight hearing, President Clinton's national drug policy director, Barry R. McCaffrey, told lawmakers he lacked the statutory authority to include anti-drinking messages as part of this campaign.

But anti-drinking advocates see alcohol as a "gateway" to more serious drugs and some believe it poses a greater health risk to teenagers than illegal drugs. Roybal-Allard resolved to use the Treasury-Postal Service bill as a vehicle to give McCaffrey the legal authority he said he lacked. "This was an opportunity," she said in an interview.

But to Rehr, a sunny and tireless promoter, the prospect of inserting the topic of beer into the nation's anti-drug drive was devastating.

"Our adversaries want to paint a vision of the business to give people the idea that sipping a beer is like injecting yourself with heroin, which it's not," said Rehr, who conceded that widespread concern over teen drinking made his task more difficult. "Policy-wise, it was a stupid idea. Nobody wanted to say this was a stupid idea."

The political clout of Rehr's group and its allies is immense: Beer and wine interests are among the most aggressive and well-funded lobbies on the Hill. Overall, political action committees associated with the industry gave more than $2.3 million to congressional candidates last election and the National Beer Wholesalers Association gave $1.3 million alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Perhaps as significant are the close ties that Rehr, a fundraiser for Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), has to the House leadership. He is one of a handful of lobbyists who meets with DeLay each Wednesday morning to plot legislative strategy.

And Rehr had crucial allies on this particular issue. Another appropriator, Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.), thought the proposal to include underage drinking as a target could undermine the effectiveness of the federal government's battle against illegal drugs. Northup bows to nobody in her opposition to underage drinking--she recounts how she yanked her 20-year-old daughter out of a line for drinks at a wedding reception this month because she wasn't technically legal--but added: "They are two very different substances. Drugs are illegal. They are bad for you at any time."

Roybal-Allard at first seized the upper hand in the debate through a fluke. The chairman of the House Appropriations Treasury-Postal subcommittee, Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), was forced to postpone the panel's markup until the morning of May 15, when Northup was scheduled to fly to her son's graduation. Neither Northup nor Rehr thought the provision was going to be offered then, so when Roybal-Allard proposed language calling for underage drinking to be included in the ad campaign, the chief opponent on the subcommittee was absent. The panel adopted the amendment by voice vote.

As both sides prepared for a battle in the full Appropriations Committee, Roybal-Allard's allies intensified their attacks on the alcohol industry. The Center for Science in the Public Interest published a study of the industry's contributions to panel members during the last election, noting that Northup "received by far the most" money from beer and liquor interests, with more than $38,000 in donations.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving president Karolyn Nunnallee even took the unusual step of directly attacking Rehr at a news conference. She cited a Los Angeles Times article in which he was quoted as saying that each lawmaker should look in the mirror and say, "It's not worth messing with the beer wholesalers."

Nunnallee said: "In the days ahead, we will learn whether the members of the House Appropriations Committee see Mr. Rehr's face when they look in the mirror or the faces of thousands of young people who die each year as a result of alcohol."

But the bill stalled in the House, so the battle shifted to the Senate. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) announced in late June that he planned to offer a similar provision to Roybal-Allard's when the bill came to the floor, giving advocates on both sides roughly a week to advance their cause.

"We worked it about as hard as any other issue I've been involved in," said Tom Howarth, a MADD lobbyist.

But the beer wholesalers also worked the issue hard. They blanketed the Senate with faxes, with Rehr instructing his receptionists to call members' officers to make sure the group's missives had been safely delivered. The beer wholesalers also enlisted the support of two senators who could make a compelling case: Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), whose sister died from alcohol-related abuse, and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), whose mother was killed by a drunk driver.

The beer industry's position was also bolstered by McCaffrey and the chairmen of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, former New York governor Mario Cuomo (D) and one-time drug czar William J. Bennett, coming out against the anti-drinking language. They argued that the proposed rule might muddy the message of the anti-drug efforts. The Lautenberg amendment failed, 58 to 40.

MADD continued to press House appropriators, flying in a group of Oklahoma mothers to meet with Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), while other members lobbied Northup and Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.).

Wholesalers and other alcohol representatives also trooped into members' offices.

Democrat Sam Farr, whose district includes part of California's wine country, said producers in his district convinced him the anti-drug campaign was the wrong vehicle for alcohol awareness efforts.

House appropriators on July 13 hotly debated whether to strike Roybal-Allard's provision. DeLay argued that an anti-drinking initiative belonged elsewhere in the federal government, while Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who supported the measure, yelled at his colleagues for abandoning the nation's youth.

In the end, the beer industry carried the day: The full committee voted 32 to 23 to kill the underage drinking language.

CAPTION: David Rehr of the National Beer Wholesalers Association marshaled industry's power to ban anti-drinking messages in anti-drug campaign.