Senate leaders failed to obtain agreement yesterday on procedures for speedy disposal of the natural gas bill and the Senate seemed to be slipping back into a wheel-spinning filibuster last night.
Administration supporters claimed to be within reach of a majority vote for a compromise put forward by Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) Wednesday evening.
But most of Byrd's efforts yesterday were devoted to trying to work out a purely procedural agreement with supporters and opponents of removing price controls from new natural gas - an agreement that they would accept an up or down vote on Byrd's proposal and would not resort to another filibuster, which opponents of deregulation have used to tie up the Senate since Monday.
Sens. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) and Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), leaders of the filibuster, agreed to support Byrd's proposal for continued regulation at a higher price, but gave no promise that they would not resume their filibuster if a deregulation amendement prevailed.
When the Senate met at 5 p.m. after a five-house recess, Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.), champion of oil-gas interests, denounced the Abourezk camp for not agreeing to abide by a majority vote. Because of that, Long said, he would demand a vote on every one of more than 400 amendments, at the desk if Byrd's motion to put his compromise before the Senate was adopted. Byrd's motion was adopted by voice vote.
"If the other side wants to be a poor loser, I'll be a poor loser," said Long, adding that "I have as much capability as the average senator to engage in a filibuster." He learned it from his father, Huey Long.
Long said he would agree to let the Senate choose between regulation and deregulation, but would not agree to a one-sided proposition that if his side won it might ultimately lose in a filibuster, while that rule wouldn't apply to the other side.
Speaking time has been limited to one hour per senator since the Senate invoked cloture Monday. But Abourezk and allies had introduced 508 amendments before that and were able to keep the filibuster going by demanding a roll-call vote on each.
Long grabbed their ammunition, calling up their amendments and telling the Senate: "It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference to me whether you vote yes or no."
Long could help the leadership if he succeeded in chewing up all of Abourezk's amendments quickly by voice votes. Perhaps that was his purpose. But throughout the dinner hour the Senate floor was a chaotic place, with Long calling up amendments he appeared to have no interest in, Abourezk demanding quorum calls to see up time, the chair ruling that Abourezk was being dilatory and Abourezk forcing roll-call votes on appeals of the rulings of the chair. Abourezk always lost. As it turned out, most of the amendments Long called up were ruled out of order on grounds that the Senate already had acted on identical amendments earlier.
All this was part of an effort by the Senate to act on President Carter's proposal to continue price controls on newly discovered natural gas but to raise the ceiling from $1.46 to $1.75 per thousand cubic feet (mef). The issue has been before the Senate for nine days.
The industry has sought for deregulation for 23 years. A highers price than Carter would give is needed to encourage more exploration and to avoid shortages, it contends.
Supporters of the industry, led by James B. Pearson (R-Kan.) and Lloyd M. Bensten (D-Tex), would keep a ceiling of about $2.48 on new gas for two years, then let it seek its own level. Byrd's proposal is to raise the ceiling on new gas to $2.03 and permit more gas to qualify as new for the higher price.
"It's within a vote or two, but I think they're afraid to try it," said Sen. Gary W. Hart (D-Colo.) of the Senate Democratic leadership's compromise effort.
The dizzy array of opinions about the issue was making it especially tough to settle. The deregulation forces wre evidently ready for a showdown, but not those who wanted controls. There were reportedly about five senators regarded by the leadership as potential swing voters, but the complexity of their positions illustrated the problem."
Hart, of instance, said he said probably the only senore who favours deregulation and divesobably the only senator who favors deregulation and dives major oil and gas companies and keep production separate from other ends of the business, such as refining). Hart voted against last week's attempt to kill the Pearson-Bentsen deregulation proposal, but he isn't committed to voting for it.
In the process, President Carter, Vice President Mondale, Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr. and other adminstration officials have all spoken with Hart over the past two weeks, trying to win him over. Lobbyists from the American Petroleum Institute, the Independent Gas Producers Association, the AFL-CIO and Energy Action (an anti-industry group) have been in "almost hourly" contact with Hart's staff. This week, Hart has been buttonholed primarily by his colleagues.
Hart said Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) had been especially "fair" and willing to bargain over Hart's bill to win deregulation of independent producers if Hart, in turn, could "deliver the votes" to put across the leadership's gas-pricing compromise for the rest of the industry. But Hart said he doubted he could bring over more than one other senator, whom he did not name.
In fact, Hart said, a vas majority of the independent gas producers in the nation were afraid to come out for his bill to deregulate them because they are "so wedded" to the majors and so dependent on them for financing, equipment and the like.
"They're sophisticated vassals," he said. "It's a 16th-century world."
Other heavily lobbied senators included Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), John J. Sparkman (D-Ala.) and Jennings Randolph (D-W. Va.).
"I told someone this morning he [Randolph] is with the Democrats on this, and the fella asked me, "Which Democrats?'" A Randolph aide said with a laugh. "He's with Pearson-Bentsen."
As for DeConcini, he told his staff last week before he voted to keep the Pearson-Bentsen bill alive: "'Well, Jimmy Carter's called . . . Schlesinger's called. Everybody but God's called and I've still got a stack of phone messages here that I haven't gone through."
DeConcini said the competing bids for his vote have been "subtle and frequent" and all very proper. But at this point he is troubled and confused by the conflicting statistics he keeps getting from the administration on the one hard and the industry on the other.
"I'm now uncertain about who to believe," he said. DeConcini said he was prepared to support the leadership's proposal to recommit the legislation, but would like to vote for a phased deregulation scheme when the substantive voting finally comes. He said he though higher prices are inevitable if adequate supplies are to be obtained.
So did Mathias, who wryly told a reporter that "everybody" in the administration has called him, but called him, but "not anybody from the industry, not one soul." Mathias is still for deregulation.
"This is an administration that seems to proceed from the notion that you can handle it all with money. The idea that your stand might be a philosophical one seems never to have occurred to them," Mathias said. "The hard fact is that prices are going to go up either way, as the result of regulatory increases or as a result of supply and demand. This is the unhappy fact the government owes the public: to tell them what's going to happen and why it's going to happen."