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House Backs Cut in Funding for Interior Dept.


WASHINGTON — The House took a step back into the debate over environmental issues Thursday, approving legislation to provide the Interior Department with about $800 million less than the Clinton administration says it needs to carry out its mission in 1997.

With the House likely to take up next week a second funding measure that imposes similar budget restraints on the Environmental Protection Agency, Congress is at least partly reopening the contentious debate that tied it into knots last year.

At that time, the newly elected Republican majority tried to relax two decades of legislation protecting waterways, forests and air quality through a variety of means, including by limiting the government's environmental jurisdiction through a series of policy "riders."

The Republicans, concerned that they were being tagged as anti-environment, generally softened their opposition this year. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has on more than one occasion spoken publicly about the damage the party may have done to itself because it was cast as running an anti-environment crusade last year.

"Frankly, we had to stop, back up, rethink," he said in a speech Tuesday that looked back at the environmental fights House Republicans fought last year.

Yet the GOP's new approach still goes too far in the view of the administration. White House officials have argued that the pending budget bills would harm the environment to such an extent that the president is likely to veto them.

The bill approved Thursday, which has not been considered by the Senate, would provide the Interior Department, the Forest Service, conservation programs in the Energy Department and the Smithsonian Institution with $12.1 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, or nearly $500 million less than the agencies are getting this year. Clinton had sought to increase the funding to $12.9 billion.

The vote was 242 to 174, largely along party lines. Twenty Republicans voted against the measure and 39 Democrats voted for it.

Votes on two leading provisions of the measure indicate how divided the House remains over environmental issues.

By a two-vote margin, the House turned back a proposal that would have imposed restrictions on cutting timber from some of the oldest forests in the nation--particularly those in the Pacific Northwest--after they were opened to loggers a year ago.

But the House also approved by a vote of 257 to 164 a measure protecting the wooded habitat along the Northern California coast and in Oregon and Washington state of a locally disappearing seabird known as the marbled murrelet.

The administration objected to the overall cut in spending, as well as to an 18% reduction in Clinton's request for the National Park Service, a 14% reduction in his spending plan for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a 33% reduction in the amount he requested for energy conservation programs.

The separate measure funding the EPA, on which the House hopes to complete work Tuesday, would provide $6.5 billion, roughly 7% less than Clinton sought and equal to the current funding.

A senior agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity, complained that the measure would cut $8 million from programs enforcing the cleanup of toxic waste sites, $100 million from a $550-million drinking water fund, all $72 million marked for development of environmental technology and half of the $100 million set aside for cleaning up Boston harbor, a program begun by President Bush after he made the harbor's pollution a weapon in his 1988 presidential campaign.

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