President Bush is facing increasing congressional criticism over his handling of the Alaska oil spill, and a public opinion poll shows a sharp drop in the president's rating on environmental issues.

A hearing before the Senate environmental protection subcommittee Wednesday was marked by repeated questioning of administration witnesses on why the federal government did not move more quickly to control the spill and limit its spread along Alaska's southern coast.Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine suggested Bush was "far too slow to comprehend the magnitude of this disaster" and said federal laws should be changed to require that the federal government assume control of such a spill immediately unless it is clear the cleanup is going properly in private hands.

Because of the "unbelievably slow" response by not only industry but also the Bush administration, "there has never been a time when this situation was under control," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the environmental subcommittee.

Several Republican senators, though not critical of Bush personally, said they had little confidence in leaving the cleanup to Exxon Corp. and that the administration should have moved more quickly to deal with the spreading oil in Alaska's Prince William Sound.

"I'm disappointed the president didn't see it that way," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, adding that the oil spill on March 24 is likely to have an impact on the wildlife, ecology and economy of southern Alaska for years.

Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, the president's point man in the spill recovery, acknowledged disappointment in Exxon's performance and said of the industry's contingency plan for such an accident: "On the scale of one to 10, it was a zero."

But he defended the administration's decision to leave the cleanup chore largely with the oil company. Exxon "had made a total (financial) commitment . . . and they had the technical expertise to deal with the problem that was already out of the bottle," Skinner told the senators.

On April 7, Bush directed greater federal involvement in the cleanup effort, committing military assistance to the recovery and putting Admiral Paul Yost, the U.S. Coast Guard commandant, in charge of coordination in Alaska.