Environment: Old Issues, Familiar Cast

No surprises are likely for the Administration's environmental policy team. Both Interior Secretary Babbitt and EPA administrator Browner are interested in keeping their jobs.

That Babbitt's job is secure is a sign of a political sea change that's taken place during the past two years. In the 1994 congressional elections, the Republicans won a host of western races by campaigning against Babbitt's unpopular land-use policies. After that election, Washington insiders speculated that Babbitt's days in the Cabinet were numbered. But he may have saved himself, a Democratic House staff member said, ``when he lowered his visibility in Washington and spent more time in the West.'' This year, Babbitt and Browner also ingratiated themselves with top Democrats by actively campaigning for the party's congressional candidates.

In the 105th Congress, Babbitt may face a repeat of some battles of previous years. Two big ones might involve overhauls of the federal mining law and the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Babbitt is placing a high priority on tackling overdue maintenance, land acquisition and air quality problems in the national park system. And he is expected to continue to oppose attempts by the powerful Alaska congressional delegation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to new oil and natural gas exploration.

If she stays, Browner, a protegee of Vice President Gore's, is expected to reengage in the seemingly endless battle over revamping the costly and controversial superfund hazardous waste cleanup program. That effort got a higher priority this summer after Clinton promised to clean up two-thirds of the nation's worst superfund sites by 2000. Renewed congressional efforts to rewrite the 1972 Clean Water Act will also be high on the agency's agenda.

EPA will also be at the center of two high-profile regulatory efforts destined to get the attention of Congress and the business community. The first proposal would force the states to dramatically cut their air pollution; the second would limit microbial contaminants in drinking water.

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