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Congress Rejects Clean Water Veto : Senate Votes 86 to 14 for Override; Loss of Reagan's Clout Discounted

February 05, 1987|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate, joining the House in a sharp legislative repudiation of White House leadership on a pressing environmental concern, voted 86 to 14 Wednesday to override President Reagan's veto of the $20-billion Clean Water Act.

The override was the first of the month-old, Democratic-led 100th Congress and only the seventh of Reagan's six-year presidency. The measure now becomes law, authorizing federal aid for waste water projects in as many as 1,500 cities--including hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade Los Angeles' troubled sewage treatment system.

Senators from both parties warned against viewing the override as a sign that Reagan, midway through his final term, had lost much of his clout.

'Bum Rap' for Reagan

"This will be widely interpreted throughout the United States as a reflection of the weakness of the presidency as a result of the Iran matter. I think that's a bum rap," said Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), who managed the override vote on the Senate floor. "But that's what makes this (veto) such an incredible act of bad judgment on the part of the President and the White House."

Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), who guided the clean water bill through the last session of Congress, said that Reagan retained his power to shape legislation and influence the congressional agenda, despite the overwhelming override vote.

"I just don't think this vote is indicative of anything in the future," Chafee said.

Foremost, the vote is evidence that the President is out of step with public support for improving the environment, Democrats said.

Only one Democrat, Sen. J. James Exon of Nebraska, voted to uphold the veto.

Reagan criticized the measure last week as budget-busting, pork-barrel legislation, and Exon warned his colleagues that, by overriding the veto, they would be giving the President ammunition for continuing charges that Congress was responsible for the size of the federal deficit.

"Politically, if we override, we will have 'made his day,' " Exon said.

Republican critics of the legislation, led by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, said that, by voting against the override, they were going on the record not against clean water but in favor of trimming the deficit.

"There is also such a thing as . . . pollution of the money supply, a pollution of fiscal policy, a pollution of the integrity of the credit of the United States," said Sen. Steven D. Symms (R-Ida.). "And we are literally piling debt upon debt upon debt."

1981 'Pact' Cited

But Mitchell said Congress simply was following through on a pact made with the President in 1981--when federal support for local sewage treatment projects was slashed to $2.4 billion from $5 billion annually--to maintain federal subsidies at a steady level for another decade.

"We made a bargain. We kept our end of it," Mitchell said. "The President did not."

Environmentalists cheered the Senate action, which followed a 401-26 House vote Tuesday to override the veto.

"The Clean Water Act has been one of the more successful pieces of environmental legislation," said David Baker, political director of Friends of the Earth, a national environmental activist group. "In 1969, the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland caught fire. Due to the Clean Water Act, primarily, that doesn't happen anymore."

'Laden With Pork'

In vetoing the legislation last week for the second time in three months, Reagan criticized Congress for sending him a bill that he said was "loaded with waste and laden with pork." Legislative leaders testily rebutted the charge Wednesday, noting that a $12-billion compromise measure which the White House proposed last month contained all the special projects listed in Congress' version. The difference was in grants and loans provided to states.

"It appears (that), if the Congress proposes, it's pork," Mitchell said. "If the President proposes, it's roast sirloin."

Eager for Challenge

Both houses first passed the legislation unanimously in October, but Reagan killed that measure with a pocket veto after Congress had adjourned. The 100th Congress--its Democratic leadership eager to pose an early challenge to the President--made passage of identical legislation the first major order of business when it convened last month.

The legislation provides $18 billion through 1994 in federal subsidies for local sewage treatment projects. In a concession to the President, however, the federal subsidy program--the financial underpinning of U.S. water cleanup efforts since the first Clean Water Act became law in 1972--is phased out over the new act's nine-year life.

Under a revised formula for distributing the federal aid, California will get $1.3 billion for sewage system construction. Officials in Los Angeles expect the State Water Resources Board to use the aid to fund "a major portion" of the city's 10-year, $2.3-billion sewer improvement program, Deputy Mayor Tom Houston said Wednesday.

Raw Sewage in Pacific

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