WASHINGTON -- Legislation easing the liability of lenders for environmental cleanup cleared a major hurdle in the House Wednesday, as a House Public Works subcommittee approved the Superfund bill on a voice vote.

In sending the bill to the full committee, the panel defeated an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bill Zeliff, R-N.H., that industry lobbyists said could have led to the bill's defeat on the floor.

The Zeliff amendment would have exempted companies from responsibility for the cleanup of sites contaminated prior to 1987. Had it passed, the amendment could have splintered the delicate coalition of bankers, environmentalists, lawmakers, and business leaders backing the bill.

"This amendment is fundamentally contrary to the bill we are considering and to the coalition agreement, which is the only hope of getting a reform bill passed," said Public Works Committee chairman Norman Mineta, D-Calif.

Banking lobbyists say the bill should pass the full committee today without difficulty.

"I'm very optimistic," said John Byrne, senior counsel at the American Bankers Association.

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