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After years of stalemate, Washington decision makers are poised this year to impose new federal requirements aimed at curbing air pollution from power plants that each year cuts short the lives of 24,000 Americans.

The question is how far and how fast the country should go.

The debate will be fully engaged this spring as the Senate takes up the president's proposal to rewrite national air pollution law; yesterday a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee held its first hearing of the year on the bill.

The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, is pushing to complete work on two major regulations, due to be issued by mid-March, that would address mercury contamination from power plants and pollution that drifts from one state to another in the East and Midwest.

Last month, the EPA finalized new national air quality standards that will force noncompliant states and localities to crack down on local sources of air pollution.

What emerges from all this will affect such things as an average family's monthly electric bill and whether the children in that household develop asthma.

"This is a pivotal moment," said James L. Connaughton, President Bush's top environmental adviser. "This is equal in significance to taking lead out of gasoline, or putting catalytic converters on cars."

Critics of the Bush administration, which has signaled that it will enact the changes this year either through legislation or regulation, say the White House is wasting a critical opportunity by not pushing for stricter standards that could further reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury.

During a Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday, Republicans touted Bush's "Clear Skies" legislation, which aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury by 70 percent -- but not until after 2018. Subcommittee Chairman George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) told reporters after the hearing that GOP leaders plan to press for a full committee vote as soon as mid-February so they can bring the bill to the floor. He added that if they cannot pass the bill in six months, they will consider it dead.

Democrats and public health advocates oppose the measure, saying it would do nothing to curb emissions linked to global warming and would undermine existing air quality standards and enforcement tools. Under the Clean Air Act, they argue, the administration could demand pollution cuts as steep as 90 percent by 2008, and the health benefits would far outweigh the costs to industry.

"You're telling us more than 20,000 premature deaths a year . . . and we're going to reduce this pollution by 2 to 3 percent a year? That just doesn't make sense," said Eric Schaeffer, who resigned as head of the EPA's enforcement division in 2002 and now directs the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group.

No one questions that the United States has dramatically improved the quality of its air since 1970, when Congress passed the Clean Air Act.

In 1990, the EPA evaluated the costs and benefits associated with air pollution controls over the preceding two decades, looking at health costs and lost productivity. Its studies concluded that if the government had not acted, 205,000 more Americans would have died early and millions more would have suffered from heart disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

The pollutants at issue harm people in various ways. The fine particles contained in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide soot become embedded in the lungs and cause respiratory illness as well as heart disease. Mercury, toxic to immature brain cells, makes its way up the food chain from fish swimming in rivers and lakes polluted by power plant emissions and hampers brain development in fetuses and young children.

Since 1970, the EPA concluded, cleaner air has saved the nation between $6 trillion and $50 trillion in health costs and lost productivity, at a cost of $523 billion. The ability to estimate these costs and benefits has greatly improved in recent years, as medical researchers have become better at measuring air pollution's impact.

"The Clean Air Act has been our nation's most successful, and controversial, environmental law," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. "Because of the Clean Air Act, Americans are healthier and living longer."

During the first two decades of this air quality push, a series of bipartisan compromises resulted in unleaded gasoline, cleaner cars and sulfur dioxide reductions through the acid rain program. While legislative efforts stalled after 1990, under President Bill Clinton officials administratively cut diesel emissions from trucks and tightened national smog and soot standards, while suing some of the dirtiest power companies for not cleaning up aging plants.

This flurry of activity inspired some utility executives to reach legal settlements with the Clinton administration and start "peace talks" with environmental groups about curbing several pollutants. But those efforts fell apart once Bush took office in 2001 and announced he opposed mandatory restrictions on carbon dioxide, wanted to relax requirements for upgrading old power plants and would take a different approach to regulating such pollutants as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

Striving to make emissions cuts while keeping energy costs low, the administration proposed a cap-and-trade system that would over time reduce pollution from power plants, which account for 67 percent of the nation's sulfur dioxide emissions, 41 percent of its mercury pollution, 39 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions and 22 percent of its nitrogen oxide pollution.

Much of that pollution comes from a small number of aging plants: Fewer than half of the country's coal-fired utilities account for more than 90 percent of the industry's sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury pollution, said Emily Figdor, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Clear the Air, adding half of the dirtiest plants increased their pollution levels since 1995.

Industry supports the Bush plan, and administration officials say it would be more effective than suing companies to enforce existing law or enacting rules that utilities would fight in court. About one-third of all Americans breathe air that does not meet federal standards today; under the White House proposal, 20 million of them would be breathing air that meets the guidelines within 15 years. Administration officials also note that new rules it imposed, which will virtually eliminate sulfur dioxide from the emissions of off-road diesel engines, will avert 12,000 premature deaths a year when fully phased in.

Thomas L. Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, calls the lawsuit-oriented approach his office has long pursued to enforce clean-air laws "the slow boat to China."

"Clear Skies is a simple, cost-effective way of reducing air pollution over a broad multi-state area," he said.

Under the cap-and-trade system, said utilities lobbyist Scott Segal, the dirtiest power plants are also the most likely to clean up quickly since they can reduce emissions significantly at a low cost.

But environmentalists and some state and local officials say other provisions in the Bush plan -- such as suspending the legal stick the government uses to force cleanups of aging utilities and the right of states to sue neighboring states over pollution -- will make it impossible for localities to meet new federal air quality standards for years.

"The provisions in Clear Skies are too little and too late," said John Paul, a Republican and the head of a regional air pollution agency in Dayton, Ohio, who testified before the Senate yesterday.

Two senators have competing proposals, both of which include provisions to curb carbon dioxide and push for steeper pollution cuts. Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) would reduce nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and mercury between 72 and 90 percent by 2009 while limiting carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels, while Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) calls for slightly more modest cuts of all four pollutants by four to six years later.

The debate often comes down to "lives vs. jobs." Proponents of the Jeffords plan say that by 2020 it would save 100,000 more lives than the administration's bill; the White House counters the Jeffords measure would cost 272,000 jobs and drive electricity costs up 26 percent by 2025.

At the moment the Senate appears deadlocked; Carper, the White House's most likely potential Democratic ally, says that if the administration continues its "my way or the highway" approach, "you end up in a big traffic jam." But Connaughton said the president will lobby hard for his bill.

If it stalls, the White House will seek its 70 percent sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide cuts through the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which applies to 28 eastern and midwestern states. EPA plans to issue that rule, along with a separate one curbing mercury by 70 percent, in mid-March.

But regulations can be blocked more easily in court, and both sides say the nation should use this moment to clean up the skies as much as possible.

"Everybody has to think about some sort of compromise so we can get to an endgame and move on," said Robert M. Sussman, an EPA deputy administrator under Clinton who heads the environmental practice at Latham & Watkins law firm in Washington.