Shortly after Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd began his power play to end the natural gas filibuster, Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) walked up to Vice President Mondale to express his amazement.
"I said to him, 'You're not going to go along with that, are you?'" Abourezk recalled yesterday, complete with incredulous tones.
Mondale did not respond directly. "He said, 'Well I'm just going to do what's right,'" Abourezk recounted, counted.
The bitterness and resentment over what followed on the Senate floor Monday continued to reverberate yesterday even as Abourezk and Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) abandoned their 14-day rearguard action against lifting federal controls on the natural gas.
With the help of Mondale's acquiescent rulings and the bipartisan concurrence of other Senate leaders to most of the sript, Byrd effectively squelched the drawn-out filibuster but not without rekinding deep-seated suspicious among Senate liberals who had never quite trusted him.
The resentment spilled over onto Mondale and the White House as well. The only question was how long it would take to dissipate and whether it would do any lasting damage to Byrd's leadership of the Senate. The majority leader, many of his colleagues on both sides of the naturalgas issue seemed to agree, had gone "too far."
"It caused some bruises that will take some time to heal," said Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen (D-Tex.), a leading advocate of deregulation.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) had harsher words for the episode, calling "a conspiracy to abuse the rules" of the Senate.
"If you sit back and watch this once," he warned to a reporter, "you'll sit back and watch it again."
Other senators were baffled by the White House's obvious complicity in the end-of-the-filibuster strategy. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) said he still couldn't understand why President Carter didn't come out publicly and gently call on the filibusterers to end their campaign. Abourezk and Metzenbaum were ostensibly carrying on their tedious delaying action in support of the administration's position.
In fact, just such a strategy - asking Carter to ask the filibusterers to withdraw - had been discussed at an inconclusive meeting in the majority leader's office (Byrd wasn't present for that part of the discussion) last Friday, Muskie said.
"At least it should have been tried," Muskie said.
Instead, the end-the-filibuster move was concocted at a series of meetings last Saturday and Sunday involving Byrd, senate Majority Whip Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), Sens. Clifford Hansen (R-Wyo.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), and Russell B. Long (D-La.). Several Democratic and Republican staff strategists also attended. Byrd was evidently growing increasingly frustrated at the drawnout filibuster-by-amendment, especially in light of Metzenbaum's estimate that he and Abourezk could probably keep it going for another week and a half.
For their part, the filibusterers, intended to do just that. They say they thought the White House was on their side, too.
"Every night that we stumbled out of here [during the filibuster], the White House people kept telling us, 'hang in there,'" Abourezk said yesterday. Then, during last Saturday's session, he said, "We talked to [Energy Secretary] James Schlesinger and [Schlesinger aide] Les Goldman.
"We said we were willing to hang in," Abourezk declared. at one point, he said, Schlesinger assured him on behalf of the President and the administration that "we're not going to get involved in the internal procedures of the Senate." Later, Goldman came back alone to assure Abourezk the administration would keep trying to win over enough votes to fend off deregulation.
Byrd and the other Senate leaders settled on a far different scenario Sunday. They decided to enlist Mondale, as the constitutional presiding officer of the Senate, for a series of rulings that could be used to jettison the filibusters' pending amendments (they had several hundred left) as being out of order.
The question of what to do when the filibusterers appealed Mondale's rulings, as they were certain to do, was apparently left hanging, although Long was said at least to have raised the possibility that they might be effectively ignored.
Mondale was informed over the weekend that he would be needed in the Senate on Monday at 11 a.m. According to well-placed sources, "he found out exactly what they wanted him to do" shortly before taking the chair when he was handed prepared sheets containing the rulings expected of him. Byrd also worked out with Mondale the essential strategem of having the Vice President recognize only the majority leader as he called up the filibusterers' amendments one by one for Mondale to rule out of order.Those who wanted to appeal the rulings were to be ignored.
The ploy touched off bedlam on the Senate floor with senators shouting in outrage, demanding recognition as Mondale continued to recognize Byrd to squelch 33 amendments in a row.Senators who had been sitting silently through the filibuster more or less in neutral such as Muskie, Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Jacob K. Javits (B-N.Y.) - rose to protest.
After first being cut off by Sen. John Culver (D-Iowa) from speaking at all, Byrd, red-faced, arms waving finally gained the floor to shout back about all the favors he had done over the years "for those who are seeking to get the Senate to take action now to denigrate me." It was an extraordinarily emotional performance. Byrd was almost repudiated by a Javits motion, but Sen. James B. Allen (D-Ala.) persuaded Javits to withdraw it. Discouraged by the evident White House support for Byrd's strategy, Abourezk and Metzenbaum decided to abandon their filibuster.
"Byrd's reaction was predictable," said one northern Democratic liberal. "He would have done the same thing to Allen or (Jesse) Helms. He wants to make the trains run on time. I'm more annoyed with Carter. He didn't get out and fight." In this senator's view, "the administration makes a lot of ad hoc turns and decisions" which in the long run prove to have been not well though out.