Because antimicrobial agents become less effective after the emergence of resistance mechanisms in clinically prevalent pathogens, physicians must utilize local, regional, and national antimicrobial susceptibility surveillance data to assist in choices of appropriate agents. An investigation of the spectrum and potency of eight broad-spectrum beta-lactam drugs (cefepime, cefotaxime, ceftazidime, ceftriaxone, imipenem, piperacillin with or without tazobactam, and ticarcillin/clavulanic acid) was performed using a common protocol and method (Etest; AB BIODISK, Solna, Sweden) in 102 clinical microbiology laboratories in the United States. A total of 9777 strains of Gram-negative bacilli were tested from late 1996 through April 1997. Quality assurance measures using three control strains observed quality control failures in 13 laboratories (usually ticarcillin/clavulanic acid or piperacillin), but only 2% of results required deletion. A total of 33.4% of Enterobacter spp. (1977 strains) were either resistant or intermediately susceptible to ceftazidime. Only imipenem (99.6% susceptible) and cefepime (99.1%) remained highly active against strains of Enterobacter, as well as Citrobacter freundii, indole-positive Proteae, and Serratia spp. Ceftazidime-resistant Escherichia coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae were detected at rates of 10.3% and 23.8%, respectively. Although these were participant-selected strains, only imipenem and cefepime had broad-spectrum coverage (> or = 97.1%) against these extended-spectrum beta-lactamase phenotypes. A dominant number of these extended-spectrum beta-lactamase phenotypes were reported from medical centers in the Northeast, but a nationwide distribution was observed. Among the nonenteric Gram-negative bacilli (4057 strains), the rank order of susceptibility (percent inhibited at published breakpoint concentrations) was: imipenem (86.1%) > piperacillin/tazobactam (80.1%) > cefepime (77.1%) > ceftazidime = piperacillin (74.9%) > ticarcillin/clavulanic acid (61.6%) > cefotaxime (18.2%) > ceftriaxone (12.9%). The cephalosporins, cefepime and ceftazidime, had rates of resistance for the 3005 Pseudomonas aeruginosa isolates of 10.1% and 14.4%, respectively. For all Gram-negative strains tested, only two contemporary beta-lactam antimicrobials exhibited > 90% inhibition of strains, imipenem at 93.6% and cefepime at 90.2%. These drugs were superior to the other tested compounds (48.8-84.3%). Ticarcillin/clavulanic acid had the narrowest spectrum of activity (48.8% of isolates susceptible). These results indicate that carbapenems and a new fourth-generation cephalosporin, cefepime, possess usable in vitro potencies against current clinical strains of Gram-negative bacilli, many of which harbored resistance to other antimicrobial agents.