House - Senate conferees on natural gas pricing held their first formal meeting in three months yesterday to exchange proposals on gradual lifting of price controls and then quit for a 10 - day Easter recess.
After a series of informal closed meetings that have gone on since late January, the conferees met again in open session just to put two similar proposal on bargaining table for study by both sides during the recess. Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D - Wash.), leadre of Senate conferees, said the two proposals were so close on basic issues such as eventual deregulation that he now convinced the conferees will find the natural gas agreement that has eleded them since Thanksgiving.
President Carter's entire energy bill which he launched last April as his number one legislative effort has been held up waiting for an agreement on natural gas. If the gas deadlock is broken, another of conferees will than try to reach agreement on Carter's energy taxes. But the centerpiece of the tax program, the wellhead tax on domestic crude oil to raise to world levels has been declared dead in the Senate by Sen. Russel B. Long (D - La.), leader of tax conferees.
Carter is under pressure from his leading financial advisers to achive the effect of the crude oil tax by levying an import fee on foreign oil. Purpose of his program is to reduce energy consumption to lessen reliance on foreign oil.
Carter's natural gas proposal was to continue price controls at a higher level and extend regulation to the in trastate market, though he had said during the 1976 campaign that he favored deregulation of newly discovered gas. The House approved his plan, but the Senate voted to deregulate new gas after two years.
The Senate conferees' proposal offered to the House group yesterday by a vote of 10 to 7, would deregulate a new gas after 1984, with power given to the President or Congress to reimpose controls for one two - year period if prices rise too high.
The House group, by a suprisingly close vote 13 to 12, made a counter offer that would end controls on new gas by mis - 1985, with some changes in the interim annual price escalator and the definition of new gas qualifying for the higher price.
Both House and Senate opposition came from the left and right. Conservatives felt the plans were too slow to deregulate. Liderals felt they give too much to producers at the expand of the consumers.
In thier haste to get a symbolic vote suggesting progress before going home for Easter, Jackson obtained a 10- minute limitation on debate to thin out Sen. James abourezk's list of 70 question he wanted answered before a vote and Rep. Harley Staggers (D -W.Va.), the conference cahirman, told Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn) to vote first and asked his question when the conference reconvenes after Easter. Both voted again the proposal as hurting consumers.