Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W, Va.) said yesterday he had "no choice" but to resort to steamroller tactics that broke a Senate filibuster on natural gas pricing last week, and predicted the action would lead to Senate adoption of an energy package this month.
Byrd said the Senate will adopt some kind of "substantial" energy package, and said the leadership has set a target date of Oct. 29 for adjournment. He said President Carter is to be complimented on submitting a comprehensive energy plan, but added, "It should not have been any surprise from the beginning that it would be changed."
The President's package has been largely dismantled by the Senate. All major tax proposals have been removed, and the Senate has voted to deregulate natural gas, gutted electric utility rate revisions and weakened the coal conversion program.
The House, on the other hand, approved the energy plan largely intact, and many of its members are enraged at the Senate action. The question now is whether Congress can agree on any sort of bill.
Nevertheless, Byrd yesterday spoke confidently of obtaining passage.
At his regular Saturday morning press conference, Byrd also said he would support the embattled Panama Canal treaties only if guarantees of the canal's neutrality and of the priority of U.S. warships in wartime are "clarified."
"Unless those two points are clarified, those treaties will never be ratified," Byrd warned.
[The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that with approval of the Panama Canal treaties in doubt, the administration is asking key senators to propose a statement to be endorsed by President Carter and Panamanian ruler Omar Torrijos that would clear up the points raised by Byrd.]
[The Senate is really going to dictate what the language is," an administration official told The Times. "We're going to go to the big hitters . . . and say, 'What do you think the Senate would live with?' And then we'll try to work it out diplomatically with Torrijos," who is expected in Washington shortly.]
["Torrijos understands that our interpretations are the right ones," the source said, "but they (various Panamanian officials) aren't admitting it" publicly because of political problems with leftists who strongly oppose the treaties.]
Most of the press conference was devoted to the filibuster by the small band of senators who tied up the chamber for 13 days trying, by amendments, to prevent a vote on the bill to deregulate natural gas prices. The bill was approved Wednesday, 50 to 46.
"This was the most difficult filibuster that I had ever been confronted with," said the majority leader. "Under the exact same circumstances, faced with the certitude that the bill would be killed if the filibuster continued, I would have done the exact same thing . . .
"Everything else had failed . . . I anticipated it would result in the volatile situation you saw, but I had no choice."
Over and over, Byrd stressed that theme - "I had no choice."
"The bottom line is that I did my duty in breaking the filibuster to save that bill," he said at one point. "I would have been criticized severely had I not ended that filibuster."
The tactic Byrd adopted was to turn over the chair to Vice President Mondale, the Senate's constitutional presiding officer. Once on the floor, Byrd - by apparent prearrangement the only senator Mondale would recognize - made a point of order that the Senate is required to throw out amendments that are dilatory or out of order for other reasons.
Mondale, reading from a prepared script, ruled that Byrd was correct, and ruled out 33 amendments that addressed more than one area of the bill. The Senate upheld Mondale by 79 to 13.
That action, which took place Tuesday, precipitated a chorus of outrage directed at Byrd and at the administration.
Byrd said the "bruised feelings" that accompanied his actions "go with the territory" of the majority leader's job. He predicted there will be no lasting effect in the Senate. "Even now, it's becoming more apparent that I did what I had to do," he said.
He said there was a strong sentiment in the Senate a week ago to kill the bill if the filibuster were not stopped.
Byrd added he will seek a new rule in the Senate to control filibusters. The filibuster by amendment, which consumed 40 hours of roll calls and quorum calls in 13 days, began after adoption of a cloture motion to limit debate, the motion traditionally used to break filibusters.
Byrd said he and Minority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) had appointed senators to propose a rule change. Byrd said he favors a 50-hour limit on debate on a single bill. "A cap of some kind is the solution," he said. "When the time's up, that's it."