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Negotiations weakening clean-air bill, groups say

Conservation officials from 13 badly polluted areas of the nation accused Senate and White House negotiators Wednesday of trying to "cut the heart out" of a new clean-air bill through compromises that would make it impossible for states to achieve federal clean air standards. Responding to an industry-led effort to weaken the strong clean air bill drafted by a Senate subcommittee late last year, environmental groups from across the country launched a broad counter-attack Wednesday. They called a flurry of news conferences to criticize the administration and, in particular, the backstage role being played in the debate by White House chief of staff John Sununu.

In a letter to President Bush, eight major environmental groups accused Sununu of attempting to "consistently undercut" Bush's campaign pledge to be an "environmental president" who would strengthen clean air laws, protect wetlands and combat global warming.

Warning that Sununu's "direct and personal involvement . . . in reversing your pledges is driving a wedge between you and conservationists," the eight groups requested an "emergency meeting" with Bush to "clarify the direction in which you are headed on the environment."

There was no immediate response from Sununu to the letter, which was signed by the presidents or directors of the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, the Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and the Izaak Walton League of America.

But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater sought to play down the clash, saying that Sununu is just "doing his job" of ensuring that "all points of view are heard" in the environmental debate.

"The president," Fitzwater added, "has made the decisions on environmental policies. They represent his point of view and his priorities."