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House showdown vote will decide speed-limit issue. Senate has approved boost to 65 on rural parts of US Interstates

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It will be legal again to zip past Cement, Okla., at 65 miles per hour if the local United States congressman, Dave McCurdy, has his way. On Wednesday, the House will vote whether to allow the speed limit to be increased to 65 m.p.h. on rural segments of the Interstate highway system. The Senate has already approved a plan, part of a massive highway project bill nearly ready for President Reagan's signature, which would permit a 10 m.p.h. speed-limit increase along 72 percent of the Interstate network.

But it is by no means certain that the Senate plan will pass in the House, where it is the subject of bitter controversy. Western and rural lawmakers, such as Democrat McCurdy, are generally inclined to support the measure. Easterners and urbanites in Congress just as frequently seem to oppose it.

Last year, the Senate passed a measure identical to the one the House will be voting on. A variation, written by McCurdy, which would have permitted a five-year experiment with higher speed limits, lost in the 435-member House by 20 votes. Because of unresolved differences between the houses over such items as the national speed limit, the 99th Congress adjourned without passing a highway bill. So the bill was passed to the 100th Congress.

This year, the House-Senate conference on the bill bogged down again, on the speed-limit issue alone. So House Public Works and Transportation Committee chairman James J. Howard (D) of New Jersey, who has led a crusade against changing the speed limit, agreed to submit the Senate's proposal to the House for an up-or-down vote.

If the measure passes, it will be incorporated into the highway bill, which will be sent to President Reagan for his signature.

The reintroduction of the speed-limit measure in the House has resurrected a polarizing debate about the move's merits and dangers. Mr. Howard does not mince words in defense of the current limit, claiming that it has saved 26,000 lives in the 13 years it has been in effect. If the bill passes, he says, ``it's going to kill people.''

Such talk exasperates his opponents on the issue, such as McCurdy, who argue that the decline in traffic fatalities is due as much to improvement in roads and automobile safety features as it is to the 55 m.p.h. limit. Besides, they contend, states should set the limit, not the federal government.

Partisans agree on one thing: Wednesday's outcome cannot be predicted. But supporters of the speed-limit change say circumstances may have changed in their favor since the last time the House voted. For one thing, the Reagan administration has come out in support of change. For another, 65 m.p.h. advocates were given a week's notice of the impending vote this year; last year, supporters of the McCurdy proposal were given only two hours' warning.

``This year, we have time to build support,'' McCurdy says. Perhaps he will try to play on his colleagues' consciences. Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts says that if ``members vote the way they drive, this thing will pass overwhelmingly.''

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