LEGISLATION: Environmental Laws Become Key Issues In Congress

The 1994 mid-term elections wildly surpassed all expectations for a Republican resurgence. The GOP gained eight seats in the Sen-ate and a remarkable 52 seats in the House.

With the GOP's firm grasp of Congress, President Clinton must now moderate his plans and programs, reverting to the "new Dem-ocrat" plank that characterized his presidential campaign. In particular, the White House must reas-sess its expectations for revising some environmental laws.

Business groups see the Repub-lican-controlled 104th Congress as a chance to improve the climate for business under the environmental laws. "There is a lot of opportunity to encourage state and local governments to address the problems," said a spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce. "I do not think anyone is looking at [the new Congressional make-up] as a way to dismantle any of our environmental statutes," he added.

Some conservative Democrats want consensus with the Republi-cans on environmental issues. For example, this session Rep. W.J. Tauzin (D-La.) will be very active in the reauthorization of the Endan-gered Species Act, despite his par-ty's minority status. Compromise is more likely without liberal Dem-ocrats in control, according to Ken Johnson, Tauzin's press secretary.

The elections have put environmental issues at the crossroads, said Sierra Club Political Director Dan Weiss. Environmental groups hope that Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) will carry forward the consensus a-chieved last session on Superfund reform, said Weiss. However, if the new congressional leadership at-tempts to gut current environmental laws, the environmental community "will fight them," he added.

The number of environmental bills that Congress will address is an area of possible consensus. En-vironmental groups seem resigned to a smaller agenda. The fewer environmental bills, the better chance that important ones will pass, according to a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters.

A likely list of key environmental bills for 1995 includes Superfund, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endan-gered Species Act. Other matters with an environmental angle come from the Republican's "Contract With America," including property takings, unfunded mandates and risk assessment.

Superfund reform legislation in the 104th Congress will not resemble bills debated last session, said industry sources. The shift in lawmakers' outlook will likely produce measures to eliminate retroactive liability and to moderate cleanup standards at contaminated sites.

Prospects are good for some kind of Superfund reform. Senate Re-publicans in particular seem anxious to get the effort underway. "There is going to be a large push to end the retroactive liability scheme," said an industry source.

However, even with an industry-friendly Republican Congress, e-limination of retroactive liability is not assured. Lobbyists for business give the proposal, at best, a 50-50 chance for passage. Business will not support additional payments to bail out a few companies from Su-perfund liability, said a waste management industry representative. Congress also will look closely at risk assessment and "how clean is clean," said an industry source.

An insurance industry spokes-person was relatively upbeat. In-stead of how to pay for the program, the question now is "whether there is a Superfund program." Realistically, the insurance industry predicts no capitulation by the administration on comprehensive changes in the Superfund law.

The business community also thinks chances are good for passage of Superfund reform in 1995. But Congress, a lobbyist said,"has got to strike a middle ground."