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PRESIDENT Reagan has done what environmentalists feared he would but hoped he wouldn't do: He has pocket-vetoed the Clean Water Act. Unswayed by the unanimous passage of the bill in both houses, he has continued to insist that it would break the federal budget. With time run out on the 99th Congress, there is no opportunity to override the veto.

So what's the next step?

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Reintroduction of the same bill into the 100th Congress. Its sponsors have already laid claim to HR 1 as the designation for the new bill.

The bill that passed the 99th Congress was one of those carefully cobbled-together compromises typical of recent environmental legislation. If all parties can resist temptation to dicker further with it once it is reintroduced, it will move more expeditiously through Congress and back to the President's desk.

The switch of the Senate to Democratic control may make this a little more than a pro forma exercise, however. And environmental issues will be one area where the party switch may mean a shift to greater conservativism; over the years, environmental protection has been an important issue for liberal Republicans.

Moreover, it's not inconceivable that the Clean Water Act's allocation of funds to the various states will be tinkered with as those states gain or lose representation on the relevant committees.

After the Clean Water Act on the environmental agenda are reauthorization of the Clean Air Act and action on acid rain. Then come ground-water quality and pesticide law reform.

The public clearly does want environmental quality preserved. It is paradoxical that the President seems to see laws to preserve and protect our land, air, and water as government interference rather than a profound expression of conservatism. Paying for environmental quality is something that cannot be avoided; the costs only go up when it is postponed.

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