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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

To be Green, or Not to be Green: The Republican Party

Air Date: Week of

Bills to reduce environmental regulations have continued to pass in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, but with each vote the margin of victory becomes slimmer. Now, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has formed a task force of leading House Republicans to find some common ground between the party's anti-regulation and pro-environment camps. William Reilly knows what it's like to manage a house divided on the environment. He served as EPA Administrator in the Bush White House. Reilly joins host Steve Curwood to discuss Republican efforts to close ranks on green issues.


CURWOOD: President Clinton's new visibility on the environment comes as Congressional Republicans are bickering over these issues, especially in the House. Efforts to reduce environmental regulation continue to pass the House, but by ever shrinking margins. Just before the summer recess, Republicans nearly lost a vote on cutting funds for Environmental Protection Agency when nearly a fifth of their ranks defected.

Now as the fall session opens, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has formed a task force of leading house Republicans to find some common ground between the anti-regulation and pro-environment positions. With us on the line from San Francisco to discuss these developments is William Reilly, the Administrator of the EPA under President Bush.

CURWOOD: Mr. Reilly, nice to have you back on the show.

REILLY: Nice to be here, thank you.

CURWOOD: Well tell me, what's going on now among House Republicans with the environmental legislation? Why the growing number of defections from the right to the middle?

REILLY: I think there is a sense that there has been some overreaching. A sense that perhaps this Congress which has taken such pride, this leadership, in getting in touch with the concerns of the American public perhaps misread them, insofar as the public was complaining certainly about excessive governmental interference and high bureaucracy and taxes and the rest, but was not asking for roll-backs in protections for health and ecology. We are not interested in defunding the Environmental Protection Agency as a country or disenacting important pieces of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. If those measures do come out of the Congress, President Clinton has raised the stakes, he's made clear that he's going to veto them. So we'll be back at square one anyway. So, then you have to decide whether you want to make a point, or you want to make progress and make real legislative changes.

CURWOOD: Now, with the election of the new Republican Congress we saw, of course, Speaker Gingrich thrown to the forefront here. And this very tough, anti-regulatory agenda is very much a part of what he's looking for, and yet we keep hearing from numerous quarters that he is fairly interested in being supportive to environmental issues. Now, he's assembled this task force. Does he just want to cool things down, or does he want to proactively pull his troops back towards the green direction?

REILLY: Well you know, during my experiences as administrator of EPA, Speaker Gingrich, then Congressman Gingrich, was very helpful to me. He was interested specifically in environmental issues. He was a wildlife buff, he supported endangered species and the Clean Air Act. I think he's obviously got a diffuse coalition and some of the folks have gotten pretty far out in terms of bashing EPA and bashing the environment and some of the aspects of regulation they most dislike. He's got to put it back together, though. So I think that to some degree, he wants to take the steam out of the polarized character of the debate, get people talking to one another and see if some serious business can't be done.

CURWOOD: What about the president in all of this? Why do you think he's becoming so much more active on the environment now?

REILLY: My sense is the Clinton White House perceives an opening. They perceive that the Republicans in the House, particularly, have overreached, that environmental groups have successfully focused the press on some of the consequences of the measures that either are pending or look likely to or even a few that have already passed. And the President sees an opportunity to appeal to a constituency he very much needs, which is a moderate constituency, very often a suburban constituency, and particularly a female constituency in those suburbs. That was a constituency that was very important to the decision that the political advisors to President Bush made back in the 1988 election campaign to encourage him to speak out on environmental issues. I think President Clinton sees the advantages now in reaching out to those people and trying to isolate some of the proposals in the House as extreme on the environment. Polls that are beginning to come in suggest that the environment is starting to register, and it's not registering positively, I think, for the Republicans.

CURWOOD: We've seen the President advance and retreat several times during his presidency on environmental issues. Why do you think that this offensive in favor of the environment by the White House will have any more persistence than the ones before?

REILLY: Well it's not clear to me whether this campaign by the President is going to lead to more than speeches. We'll hear a lot about it, but whether it leads to serious response remains to be seen. If he does, in fact, get some of the bills that are working their way toward him that are, that do, eviscerate environmental protections, serious ones - the Clean Water and the Clean Air Act, for example - and he does veto them, then I think that we will see an even wider gulf form between the two parties. That is not, I don't think though, the way he's likely to get these bills, if he gets them at all. We've got a lot of appropriations bills, some 13 of them, that are working their way toward him. It is very possible that in the crush of budget reconciliation, riders will go on to those bills, doing some of the things that we're talking about on the environment. Then his choice would be a much more complicated one. He'd have to decide whether he's going to veto the whole Interior Appropriations Bill, or the EPA Appropriations Bill for example, send it all back and possibly have some stalemate and some shut down of the governmental operation while that happens. That's going to be a harder calculation.

CURWOOD: Are you aware of any initiative between the Speaker's office and the White House to have some rapprochement on this?

REILLY: I am aware of a lot of initiatives involving members of the House to try to bring together the moderate and conservative wings. I can't say that I'm aware of anything, though, involving the White House and the Congress.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time to join us. William Reilly was head of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Bush Administration. Thank you, sir.

REILLY: It's good to have been here, thank you.



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