The government's $8.5 billion program to clean up hundreds of the nation's worst toxic waste dumps is coming under renewed criticism in Congress for missing deadlines and being too lenient with polluters.

Two separate reports released by members of Congress took the Environmental Protection Agency to task Thursday for its management of the Superfund program, which earmarks hundreds of millions of dollars a year for waste cleanup.EPA officials blamed budget cuts imposed by Congress for part of the agency's problems in meeting some of the deadlines cited Thursday. Reacting to a number of critical reports on Superfund, Congress last year cut its budget by $175 million. It is also threatening to cut funding this year.

"Superfund is simply not working as Congress intended," said Rep. Bob Traxler, D-Mich., chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the EPA's budget.

"Instead of a strong enforcement program forcing responsible parties to undertake their own cleanups, Superfund has taken on a `public works' flavor with EPA relying primarily on national contractors paid with trust fund dollars," he continued.

The EPA is supposed to have started an actual cleanup of 175 sites by next October, but likely will begin no more than 160 partly because of the budget reduction, said Winston Porter, the EPA assistant administrator in charge of the Superfund program.

According to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, 41 of the 87 congressionally imposed deadlines that relate to Superfund have not been met or are not likley to be met. Forty of those deadlines apply to the EPA while the others apply to other federal or state agencies.