THE SENATE, tangled up in a series of bitter quarrels over energy, is doing a pretty good job of representing the public mind. It isn't what you'd call leadership. But as a reflection of national confusion, the current performance is probably pretty accurate. The Senate can't decide whether to deregulate natural-gas prices. Neither can the rest of the country. The issue is increasing the regional divisions among senators. It's doing the same thing among their constituents. The senators haven't managed to reconcile a decent definition of social equity with the urgent national need to conserve oil. But neither have the voters.
The Senate has already thrown out several large chunks of President Carter's energy plan, and it appears to be on the verge of throwing out several more. When in doubt, the Senate is resorting to the scissors. Some sort of a national energy plan is going to be passed - but there's a considerable danger that the plan will consist of continuing to do just about what the country is doing right now.
Over the last several months, unfortunately, Mr. Carter's attention seems to have moved to other subjects. After having given the energy plan a tremendous push at its launching in April, he has had very little to say about it in the succeeding months. It was as though he had ticked energy off his list of things to do and gone on to the next items. His recent comments on energy have been sparse, low-keyed and routine. The new Secretary of Energy, James Schlesigner, and his staff have been working diligently to move the legislation along. But it's a small staff, and there's no evidence of the kind of all-out White House campaign that in the past has generally accompanied bills that Presidents have considered crucial.
Mr. Carter took to television briefly the other day to invoke the familiar populist rhetoric in denouncing the "special interests" that want to deregualate the price of natural gas. But here the President is caught in a contradiction of his own making. He listened to the economists in drafting the oil sections of the plan and prescribed higher prices to cut consumption. But he listened to some of the consumers' groups on gas, and stuck with a formula that will keep gas substantially cheaper than oil. Since the country is already suffering shortages of natural gas, but not of oil, it's hard to see the logic in that decision. If the issue is social fairness, it's also hard to see why people who heat their homes with oil or electricity should pay more than people with the good luck to have access to cheap gas. Occasional sniping at special interests is not an adequate answer to legitimate doubts about the President's position on gas pricing.
If the President wants to get his energy plan through the Senate, he is going to have to engage himself fully in its cause. He is going to have to re-read his April speeches and undertake once again the job of explaining forcefully to the country why it needs his plan. Otherwise the creature is going to come to an unhappy end right there on the floor of the Senate - devoured, in full public view, with nothing left for Mr. Carter but the skin and the tail as a souvenir: Welcome to Washington. If Mr. Carter wants to rescue the substance of his original proposal - which was on the whole a pretty good and strong one - he is going to have to work for it himself.