P>One full year into Congress' War on the Environment, the environment seems to be winning. But hold your applause, and keep your powder dry. It's a long way to November.
At last check, the government was still running, the nation's credit rating was intact and the Republican congressional leadership was licking its wounds. "GOP Backing Off From Tough Stand on the Environment," trumpeted the New York Times in January. "Our party is out of sync with mainstream American opinion," warned GOP pollster Linda DiVall.
"I'll be straight with you," Tom DeLay, the House majority whip, told the Wall Street Journal. "We have lost the debate on the environment."
But while there's little doubt that environmentalists are winning the hearts and minds of the American public -- a trend Club leaders attribute to the persistence and creativity of activists from the earliest days of the 104th Congress -- there's good reason to think that Congress' push to enact its "Polluter's Bill of Rights" has been merely "DeLayed": that is, put on hold while GOP leaders devise a new plan of attack.
"The threats are still out there," warned Melanie Griffin, director of the Club's Land Protection Program in Washington, D.C. "The polluters are in tactical retreat, but their objectives haven't changed. The hard work of Club activists across the country has made the environment an issue in '96, and emboldened President Clinton to feature it in his State of the Union address. But it's not over until we elect a greener Congress."
Under the current so-called continuing resolution -- which, in the absence of a budget agreement, keeps the government operational through March 15 -- federal environmental programs are being funded at as little as 75 percent of 1995 levels. Foiled in their efforts to permanently roll back environmental laws through the budget and appropriations process, Republican leaders now appear split over how to proceed.
"In plotting strategy for the session ahead," reports Congressional Quarterly, Republicans "are essentially of two minds." Some, like rabidly pro-development Alaskan Don Young, chair of the House Resources Committee, remain militantly behind "sweeping" changes in environmental laws.
Others, like Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, favor what CQ calls a "go-slow approach."
"The only thing that has a chance of surviving is targeted, incremental reform," said Tauzin, a former Democrat and longtime proponent of anti-environment "takings" bills.
The confusion in Republican ranks, say Club leaders, is a direct result of environmentalists' success in blocking enactment of the Contract With America, and in encouraging Clinton to veto a series of potentially devastating budget and appropriations bills. But they add that activists should not confuse tactical disputes with philosophical ones.
"Takings, dirty water, gutting the Endangered Species Act, drilling the Arctic Refuge -- that's still the agenda of the 104th Congress," Griffin said. "We waged a remarkably effective defense in 1995. But it's too early to declare victory."
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