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New controls on air pollution and a proposal to make the Environmental Protection Agency a Cabinet-level department temporarily eclipsed a simmering dispute between the White House and Congress over Social Security taxes Monday.

The environmental issues moved to the forefront as members of Congress drifted back to the nation's capital for an ambitious election-year session amid sweeping changes in global politics.The House, in an attempt to encourage the democratic movements in communist countries, was expected to express strong disagreement with the Bush administration's China policy.

The House leadership planned an early vote to override the president's Nov. 30 veto of a bill to allow Chinese exchange students to extend their stays in the United States rather than go home to an uncertain fate.

Congress passed the bill after the bloody suppression of student protests in Tiananmen Square raised concerns about the risks to Chinese students in this country.

In his veto message, the president said the bill would jeopardize exchange programs and U.S.-China relations. But even Republicans have disagreed.

``I think the president made a mistake,' the House Republican whip, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, said of the presidential veto. ``I do not believe you gain anything in the long run by letting the Chinese dictatorship believe that you value their friendship enough that you will tolerate brutality and repression.'

In the Senate, the first order of business will be a complex, 430-page bill that calls for much tighter controls on automobile emissions and significant reductions in acid rain pollutants and toxic chemical releases.

Although Bush said last week that he is prepared to veto any clean air bill that exceeds $19 billion in costs, Mitchell questioned whether the president would follow through on such a threat.

In another environment-related development, Rep. Sherwood Bouhlert (R-N.Y.) said administration officials had indicated to him that the president would support his legislation to elevate the EPA to a Cabinet-level department.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said some administration aides are ``receptive to the idea' of making EPA the 15th Cabinet post, but emphasized that there has been no final decision on whether Bush would back the plan.

Mitchell refused to speculate on a proposal by Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) to cut the Social Security tax and what effect it would have on the president's proposed cut in the federal capital gains tax.

``I think it is not possible at this point to speculate on what might or might not be included in such legislation,' he said.


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