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Congress Considers Boosting EPA to Cabinet-Level Agency

FOR a member of Congress, voting to elevate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to Cabinet-level status is like voting in favor of motherhood.

A bill to do just that reached the floor of the Senate this week. It would provide a symbolic boost to environmental issues, which are a cornerstone of the Clinton administration's agenda.

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Environmental leaders see the promotion as a recognition of reality: The EPA is already as large in budget and staff as some Cabinet-level departments. In surveys of voter concerns, environmental issues rank with many of those that have representation in the Cabinet.

"The reasons [for elevating the EPA] are rooted in the psychology and prestige of the environmental issue," says Michael McClosky, chairman of the Sierra Club.

Although EPA administrator Carol Browner already sits at the Cabinet table and is treated as a Cabinet member, formal entry into the group removes any doubt that what she says carries equal weight.

The move also would put the new Department of the Environment on an equal footing with the environment ministries of other Western nations. "I think it will gain more stature and more acceptance of its views in international organizations," the bill's sponsor, Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, said on the Senate floor last week.

But on Capitol Hill, even generally popular moves can be weighted with controversy. When the legislation was introduced during the Bush administration, Democrats stalled because they felt Mr. Bush was not the "environment president" he claimed to be and did not deserve the easy public-relations boost.

Now environmentalists are unhappy with a Clinton administration move to eliminate the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, whose duties include ensuring that government agencies - including the EPA - comply with environmental regulations. The CEQ's watchdog function would be taken over by the EPA, and Clinton has established a new Office on Environmental Policy (OEP) to advise the administration. But environmentalists consider these moves to be insufficient.

Thus green groups are left in the uncomfortable position of contradicting a president they strongly support.

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A number of environmental groups have written to the White House, and another letter is on the way. But the movement has backed off from a big fight with Clinton so early in his administration and may tackle the CEQ issue more forcefully in the House version of the EPA bill.

"[Vice-President Al] Gore is saying the OEP is in the thick of things, but the point is the quality and number of people," says the leader of one environmental group, expressing particular disappointment in Mr. Gore, who came to the Democratic ticket with high marks as an environmentalist. "So what do we do? We swallow it. Overall, I'm pleased with the administration; there's a lot of `green' in the budget."

Congress's effort to elevate the EPA's status could get bogged down in the House. Some members want to use the legislation as a vehicle for changing the way the EPA is structured and to boost the EPA's focus on the issue of "environmental inequity," in which poor communities suffer from a greater proportion of environmental problems than do wealthier areas.

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