Senators of Both Parties Warn Reagan on Vetoing Bipartisan Bill : Clean Water Act Lets Democrats Flex Muscles

Times Staff Writer

As they gathered at a news conference this month to announce the Clean Water Act of 1987, Democratic and Republican senators spoke angrily about the nation’s polluted rivers and criticized President Reagan for vetoing similar legislation last year. One by one, they warned the President that members of both parties strongly supported the bill.

Briefly dampening the strong bipartisan mood, Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) predicted that, if Reagan blocked the legislation again, it would be “another self-inflicted injury” similar to the Iran- contras scandal, which has already weakened his presidency.

Clearly, the renewal and subsequent passage of the Clean Water Act have given resurgent Democrats an early opportunity to flex their muscles in the 100th Congress.

Passed by Big Margins


The act, which was approved by both houses of Congress in the waning days of last year’s session but vetoed by the President, was passed again by lopsided margins in recent weeks. Reagan has until Feb. 2 to sign, veto or allow the bill to become law without his signature.

An aide to Sen. Quentin N. Burdick (D-N.D.), who is chairman of the Senate committee that drafted the $18-billion legislation, said it was a “great way to kick off the year for the Democrats . . . . It’s just a perfect issue, a good way to throw down the gauntlet to Reagan.”

For the most part, however, Democratic leaders have been careful to avoid the appearance of partisanship. In guiding the Clean Water Act through Congress, they have bent over backward to keep Republicans in the fold, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said.

Even Mitchell sounded more like a GOP fund raiser than a Democratic spokesman for the bill during debate when he said: “The Republican Party has a long, proud and powerful tradition of protection of our environment and preservation of our resources.”


Delay Granted in Senate

And, when the White House requested a delay on the Senate’s vote, chiefly to avoid the possibility of issuing a veto before Reagan delivers his State of the Union address today, Byrd and other Democratic leaders quickly agreed, saying they had no desire to “embarrass” the President.

The Democratic strategy may be paying off, for the cooperative efforts have left White House officials hard-pressed to portray the bill--the first major legislation passed by Congress this year--as a purely politically motivated Democratic initiative.

Republicans and Democrats helped draft the complex legislation, which would provide the money over nine years to clean the nation’s lakes, rivers and streams. But White House spokesman Larry Speakes, calling the the bill too costly, said another veto is likely.

As the showdown nears, a key aide to Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) predicted that Reagan is likely to lose. Only a handful of senators and House members sided with the President against the water bill, and a substitute $12-billion cleanup measure offered by the White House was trounced on an 82-17 Senate vote.

Still, some hard-core supporters are urging Reagan to hang tough, viewing the legislation as a litmus test of his political stamina in the last two years of his presidency.

Wallop Urges Veto

Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), one of six senators to vote against the water bill, has recommended that Reagan veto the measure and thus show detractors that he has not been weakened by the Iran-contras affair. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) said Reagan should veto the bill as a “budget buster” and regain the high ground in the debate over the federal deficit.


But other Republicans who might normally be counted on to support Reagan in a veto fight have been unmoved. Last week, for example, GOP Sen. Pete Wilson said he would vote to override a Reagan veto of the bill, citing its importance to California.

Wilson’s comments echo those of others from both parties who are reluctant to vote against a bill providing generous funds for sewage plant construction in their states. In California, the legislation earmarks $1.3 billion through 1990, plus funds for several anti-pollution projects pushed by local governments.

The projects include funds to filter out sewage from Tijuana, Mexico, flowing into the San Diego water system, federal assistance to clean San Francisco Bay under a “national estuary” program, a permit allowing construction of an experimental sludge pipeline off the Orange County coast and new federal funds to clean Lake Merritt in Oakland.

Revolving Loans

Congressional sponsors said they accepted key White House recommendations in drawing up the bill, especially a phase-out of federal funding for waste-water plant construction. In its place, the measure would offer revolving loans to the states to build new sewage plants after 1990.

More important, sponsors note, is that the Clean Water Act provides $400 million to clean the runoffs from city streets and farmlands--such as oil, grease and toxic chemicals--which are estimated to cause more than half of the nation’s water pollution problems, according to Environmental Protection Agency studies.

In offering their $12-billion substitute, White House officials said they differed with Congress mostly over money. Dole, who introduced the losing measure, stressed that clean water was not an issue that pits Democrats against Republicans.

Fiscal Pollution


“It’s easy to throw money at a problem and stand up to the President,” he said. “The Congress has been doing that for years, and that’s why we have a $2-trillion deficit. If we pollute the fiscal system of this country, it will be difficult to clean up the water system.”

However, minutes after the Senate defeated the President’s substitute bill, Dole joined his colleagues in voting for the $18-billion legislation. Afterward, Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) predicted at a news conference that Reagan would lose a veto fight.

The President, who vetoed the Clean Water Act last year when Congress had adjourned, was headed for a “damaging confrontation,” Chafee said. “This,” he added, “is a battle that Mr. Reagan cannot win.”