President Bush will make air pollution (search) a top priority in Congress early next year, starting with "an aggressive push" to build support for his pollution-cutting plan, senior administration officials said Saturday.

At the same time, the administration will hold off until no later than March on a rule to cut pollution from power plants that would accomplish some of the same ends as Bush's anti-pollution plan, the officials told The Associated Press.

The White House on Saturday told the Environmental Protection Agency (search) of its game plan, which is meant to allow time for Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., sponsor of Bush's "Clear Skies" initiative (search), to hold hearings on it in January.

"The president decided to make a strong push at the start of next year to complete his clean air and clean energy agenda," said EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt (search), who met with Bush to discuss the strategy earlier in the week.

"The centerpiece will be 'Clear Skies' legislation and/or the 'Clean Air Interstate Rule,'" Leavitt added in an interview. "Both of those will provide a 70 percent reduction of nitrogen oxides and of sulfur dioxide. It would be a $50 billion investment in clean air; it would take more tons of pollution out of the air."

The Clean Air Interstate Rule would call for reducing pollution according to a timetable and strategy that closely mirror the proposals the administration offered nearly three years ago in a Clear Skies initiative that stalled in Congress.

Environmentalists, however, say the Bush legislative proposal carried by Inhofe goes further than the rule, weakening parts of the Clean Air Act.

"The Bush administration is now staking its money on a bill in Congress that weakens and delays public health protections already provided under the current Clean Air Act (search), while forcing the EPA to delay public health protections under current law," said John Walke, director of clean air programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Administration officials now hope Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, can get the bill onto the Senate floor soon. The interstate rule on power plant pollution was to have been made final by the end of this year, but doing that could detract from the need for the legislation.

"The president wants to synchronize our strategy, and Senator Inhofe has asked that we allow his hearings to be concluded before we finalize CAIR (the interstate rule)," Leavitt told the AP. "We believe that it improves the possibility of passage of Clear Skies legislation, and of course we prefer to have legislation."

The EPA will still send the interstate rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget on Monday for a 90-day review, and it will be made final by March unless Congress passes Bush's legislative plan by then, said Leavitt and James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"We're looking forward to a strong, early and aggressive push that will guarantee massive pollution cuts from our old power plants," Connaughton said. "The legislation also allows us to have a national cap on pollution from power plants, whereas the regulation only allows us to deal with the Eastern states where transported pollution is the issue."

That rule covers hundreds of coal-burning power plants that EPA believes will "significantly contribute" to ozone and soot pollution in the East. It is designed to reduce long-distance, interstate pollution, which will help states meet the more stringent federal health-based air quality standards that are being put into place.

Next Friday, Leavitt said, EPA will designate which areas of the country are not meeting the more protective standards for fine particle pollution, or soot. States will have three years to come up with plans for meeting the new standards.

But to do that, they will rely heavily on significant reductions in pollution from power plants and other industrial sources, said Bill Becker, executive director of associations representing state and local air pollution control officials.

"It is disappointing that the Clean Air Interstate Rule is being delayed by as much as three months, especially given the controversy surrounding Clear Skies legislation and how it weakens the existing Clean Air Act," Becker said.

Democrats and some moderate Republicans blocked the bill because of disagreement over whether to regulate industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, a major gas produced from burning fossil fuels that is widely blamed for warming the atmosphere like a greenhouse.

After promising to regulate it during his 2000 election campaign, Bush since March 2001 has repeatedly said he opposes regulating carbon dioxide emissions.

Leavitt said he will issue in March the last part of EPA's five-part air pollution rules, one addressing mercury pollution.

Leavitt and Connaughton said they believe legislation is superior to a regulatory approach, cutting down on the possibility of lawsuits that could delay rules from going into effect from opponents who say they do too little or require too much.

"No regulation, no matter how well crafted, can come close to providing benefits that legislation can, both in terms of certainty for business and for the environment," said Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for utilities.