Senate leaders moved yesterday to break an impasse on natural gas pricing, starting action to halt a filibuster and find a compromise on the issue.
After the Senate voted 52 to 46 Thursday to keep alive a proposal to remove price controls from new natural gas, these events quickly followed at the Capitol yesterday.
Senate liberals who oppose deregulation and also President Carter's plan to raise the present price ceiling announced they planned extended debate and would offer many amendments in an effort to block a vote on the deregulation plan offered by Sens. James B. Pearson (R-Kan.) and Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.).
A cloture petition was filed to limit debate and force a vote on gas pricing. It was signed by 20 senators, including both party leaders and Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), floor manager of Carter's natural gas bill. It will come to a vote Monday and if supported by 60 senators would limit debate to one hour per senator. Jackson predicted it would be approved.
Jackson offered his own compromise proposal which the Senate would vote on before voting on deregulation. In place of the President's proposal to raise the ceiling for new gas from $1.45 per thousand cubic feet (MCF) to $1.75, Jackson would raise it to $2.03, making it the equivalent of the highest price of domestic crude oil.
In an effort to put pressure on the Senate to vote for continued regulation, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) issued a statement calling deregulation "totaly unacceptable" to the House, which rejected Pearson-Bentsen and approved the Presiden't plan by 27-vote margin.
O'Neill cited Congressional Budget Office conclusions that deregulation would cost consumers an extra $10 billion a year while increasing production by only 5 per cent. "The House has been unwilling to impose economic hardships on the Amercian people for minimal energy gains," said O'Neill. "The House has rejected deregulation for this reason before and it will do so again."
Jackson and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) wanted this statement from O'Neill to reinforce the argument both that made to the Senate that the house has taken a strong position against deregulation and that the Senate shouldn't embark on a hopeless fight with it. Differences between the two housed on legislation must be settled at a House-Senate conference.
Deregulation opponents led by Sens. Howard M. Metzenbaun (D-Ohio) and James Abourezk (D-S.D.) has more than 100 amendments ready to offer to Pearson-Bentson.
Yesterday afternoon as Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) was trying to get a vote on his amendment to establish a government corporation with limited power to explore for and produce oil and natural gas to get accurate figures on cost, Abourezk demanded that the amendment be divided into its 20 component parts and put to 20 separate roll call votes.
Byrd called Abourezk's action "dilatory" and "counter-productive" and shortly filed that cloture petition.
Jackson said he drafted his compromise on his own without White House clearance. He said the White House had been informed of it and while preferring Carter's lower ceiling apparently would accept Jackson's judgement that a higher figure was needed.
Jackson's proposal would be subject to amendment, as would Pearson-Bentsen. The Senate could spend a week or two before getting a final decision.
The multibillion-dollar issue of natural gas pricing has been before Congress for 23 years since the Supreme Court ruled gas that is piped across state lines was subject to federal controls.
This has led to a distorted dual market with Northern consumer states suffering shortages last winter while producer states like Texas have a glut of gas put to such low-priority use as boiler fuel.
Carter would abolish the dual market and control all gas at the same higher ceiling.
The Senate approved the Pearson-Bentsen deregulation proposal two years ago.