Just as millions of Americans are having trouble coping with the combination of bitter cold and low fuel supplies, so are the White House and Congress finding it a difficult emergency to handle.
"It is a somewhat unique situation in that . . . the federal government, so far as I know, has not been in a position in the past of dealing with this particular type of problem," said White House press secretary Jody Powell yesterday.
"The avenues of communication and coordination between various agencies and sections of agencies are having to be carved out of the wilderness for the first time . . ."
Powell said that President Carter ordered his senior staff yesterday to find ways of speeding action on requests for disaster relief from states hard-hit by the winter cold wave and the fuel shortages.
But "frankly" we don't know at this point just what needs to be done," he said.
Powell also said Carter has ordered a study of whether federal disaster relief laws need to be changed to better meet crises that involve a lot of "human damage," but not much property damage.
Existing disaster legislation "contemplated hurricanes, tornadoes, floods . . . ice storms, but not an energy shortage," Powell said. " . . . It is oriented in a major way towards the cleanup, reconstruction, low interest loans, and so forth. In many areas the relief under this legislation does not directly apply to the particular problems that occur during a time of energy shortage.
Powell said later the White House is "not that familiar" with what might be done to help with the current crisis: "We're trying to determine for ourselves what the law really allows you to do in these situations."
White House Counsel Robert Lipshutz said a study of just how much aid Washington can extend is only getting under way and has reached no conclusions.
What to do if the weather stays frigid and gas companies begin cutting off private homes is just beginning to be loked at by White House energy adviser James Schlesinger and his half-dozen aides.
"To my knowledge, there's nothing that we have going to deal with that precise contingency at this particular point," said a Schlesinger adie. "We are, all of us, just burrowing into this field in what's been a hectic week on the other point" - Carter's emergency legislation to some natural gas.
Various administration officials point out that, to some degree, governors have a responsibility to ask for the kind of help they think will work.
Sens. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Me.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said yesterday Carter told them over the telephone he would study a $200 million proposal for emergency federal aid to help the poor pay their fuel bills.
"For the poor and the near-poor it has become a question of either paying the fuel bill or paying the food bill," Muskie said. A similar plan aided 49,000 families in the 12 months that ended last June.
The Federal Disaster Assistance Administration said it has received only three disaster declaration requests from governors as of yesterday afternoon. Maryland's and Virginia's requests were granted Wednesday and Florida's, received yesterday, has been sent back to the state for further information.
Florida, the agency said, asked for a broader range of aid, including temporary housing for farmworkers who are being evicted for missing rent payments, individual and family grants, disaster unemployment assistance, emergency livestock feed, and low-interest business and farm loans.
While the Carter administration has expressed hopes that its emergency natural gas legislation will clear both houses of Congress early next week, prospects for its comprehensive energy bill expected by April are another matter.
House Democratic leaders are grouping for a rational procedure for handling that bill.
Congressional machinery hasn't yet adjusted to deal with the relatively new issue of energy. Half a dozen committees in each house have jurisdiction over a piece of it. There is no mechanism to give Congress an overall look at the problem of how to produce more and use less energy.
A pending Senate committee reorganization plan would create an energy committee. The House refused to create an energy committee three years ago because existing committees didn't want to give up any of their influence.
Last month House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass.) said he planned to appoint an ad hoc energy committee. He got a lot of flak from chairmen who figured they were going to lose something, so he sent the issue off for a staff study.
One of the concerned chairmen, Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) of the Interior Committee, said O'Neill appears to have tentatively settled on what sounds like a compromise - a committee appointed to hold fairly brief hearings on the overall issue, draft a policy statement, then refer pieces of Carter's energy package to existing committees with deadlines for reporting back.
"This is a very fragile airplane," said a staff person working for O'Neill on the project. "Whether it will fly, I don't know."