There was talk of compromise last night as a weary Senate worked its way througha second day of filibusters on the issue of removing price controls on new natural gas.
As the Senate went through another deadly dull day of voting down one amendment after another, Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) and other leaders met with a string of senators, trying to put together a package that would be as close as possible to President Carter's plan to continue price controls and still win a majority vote. Two test votes during the past week indicated that the President's plan can't win as it stands.
Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.), who is leading the filibuster, said he could accept anything short of deregulation. That could mean that some change such as a higher price ceiling or redefining "new" gas to make more eligible for a higher price might pry some fence-sitting votes away from deregulation and get the support of the filibusters as well.
At 6 p.m. Byrd called for a one-hour recess to let senators have dinner. Except for a two-hour break yesterday morning the senate had been in continuous session since 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Byrd said he did not expect a second all-night session, but that "we may be here some time yet tonight."
Byrd told reporters he felt the allnight session had done some good by "making us all realize we're going to have to find some way to get to a showdown."
Natural gas that is piped across state lines is subject to federal price regulation, but gas consumed in the state where produced is not. To abolish this distorted dual market which has caused shortages in northern consuming states, Carter proposed raising the pirce ceiling from $1.46 to $1.75 per thousand cubic feet (mef) and extending controls to intrastate as well as interstate gas.
The gas industry has been fighting for 23 years to end price controls. It contends that only deregulation can produce enough gas to meet demand. Carter contends his plan provides plenty of incentive to explore for gas and says deregulation would cost consumers an extra $10 billion a year.
On Tuesday the Senate set a record as it took 38 roll-call votes on amendments to the gas bill. The previous high was 35 votes on amendments offered to the 1964 civil rights bill.
The deregulators are being led by Sens. James B. Pearson (R-Kan.) and Lloyd M. Bentsen (D-Tex.). They originally proposed that all new onshore gas be removed from federal controls immediately, and new offshore gas by 1982. They have since offered as a compromise to amend this by putting a cap of about $2.48 per mef on the price off all new gas for the next two years.
The Senate passed the Pearson-Bentsen plan two years ago, but the House balked at it, and it died.
Jackson has floated another compromise, which is essentially Carter's plan but with a higher price than the President recommended. Jackson suggested making the ceiling $2.03 instead of $1.75. But the industry has balked at that.
The House passed Carter's plan about as he proposed it, and Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) has warned the Senate that the House will not back down, or at least not very far. He said that in any case the House will not vote for deregulation.
In addition, Carter last weekend came very close to saying he would veto an energy bill containing deregulation.