The Senate and its committee have so ravaged President Carter's energy program that the question no longer is whether Congress will pass his program but whether it will pass any energy bill.
His supporters have given up on the Senate and will try to write a meaningful energy-saving bill in a House-Senate conference. Their present thinking is not even to try to revive Carter's energy taxes, which the Senate Finance Committee rejected entirely, on the Senate floor. They would have more flexibility in conference if the taxes were not slapped down by the full Senate.
In the House, which passed Carter's bill almost intact after an abrasive three-month struggle, there are angry mutterings that if the Senate doesn't get serious about energy there won't be any bill because the House won't accept a bill labeled energy with nothing in it.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who pushed the nontax parts of the Carter's program through the House, has watched for the last month as the Senate voted to deregulate natural gas, gutted electric utility rate revisions and weakened the coal conversion program - all approved by the House. Dingell will be an influential member of the House-Senate conference. He said yesterday:
"I have no intention of going for a nothing bill. We fought too hard for a bill that makes sense to go for a bill that just bears the name energy. I'm willing to stay here until the snow flies this year or next negotiating with the Senate. But I'm not prepared to write a week piece of legislation under any circumstances."
After the Senate Finance Committee voted to reject Carter's gas-guzzler tax, the crude oil equalization tax and the industrial use tax on oil and natural gas; Committee Chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.) gave up and decided to take a skeleton bill to conference as quickly as he can and try to flesh it out there. Meanwhile, Long is permitting the committee to fashion a little Christmas tree bill by adding to the measure pet incentives for the energy business.
It seems a long time ago that Carter launched his program as a "moral equivalent of war" with bushels of TV and newspaper coverage, and the House Ways and Means Committee beat back the oilmen's plowback and the House cast what Carter called a vote for the consumer when it stood with him on keeping price controls on natural gas. What happened on the way to the Senate?
Part of it was leadership, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) put everything he had into passing Carter's bill, including imposing a back-breaking schedule on committees. And at each stage of the commitee process there were strong, articulate supporters of the President's bill to give it a needed push at a critical moment.
Sneate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), on the other hand, considers the Senate an independent power and wouldn't think of cracking heads to do a President's bidding. The President had little help in Senate committees. The only member of the Senate Finance Committee who said he supported Carter's plan was Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who added that he didn't understand it very well.
Also, House members tend to specialize in one field and go on faith when a committee brings out a complex bill like the energy package. Senators tend to generalize and consider themselves expert on every subject that comes up.
The oil-gas industry has more clout in the Senate than the House because every little producing state like Kansas and Wyoming has as many senators as big consuming states like New York. And Long, longtime champion of the industry, sits at the controls of the Finance Committee.
There is also an argument, among people who accept the need to save energy, whether Carter's program is the right way to go. Should the tax code be used to save energy or should it be by regulation such as gas rationing?
Another factor contributing to the breakdown of the Carter program was a growing feeling that his bill would not meet his goals. Every independent study of Carter's bill has concluded that its estimate of saving 4.5 million barrels of oil a day by 1985 is a million barrels or so too high. This doesn't make the President's men too persuasive when they say they have to have this or that program to save so much imported oil.
James Flug of Energy Action, a consumer lobby, says the administration miscalculated by not dealing last maring with what it knew would be its main problem - the Senate and Long. At that time, when a decision raising natural gas prices to $1.45 per thousand cubic feet was still in the courts and could have gone either way, the administration should have made a deal with Long to raise gas to $1.75, which the administration proposed, in exchange for his solid support for the rest of the bill.
A good part of the program's Senate problem undoubtedly is the fact that the energy crisis which the President sees down the road is not yet visible to the public and it has not demanded that Congress pass a bill. And large new issues usually requires a gestation period longer than energy has had before Congress produces a coherent program.