White House officials are banking on congressional fear of the political fallout that would result from a failure to enact national energy legislation this year to salvage President Cater's energy proposals, which now lie in shambles in the Senate.
They are convinced they have done everything possible to create the most favorable political climate for the administration energy plan. In the end, they believe, Congress will enact an acceptable package rather than face the political consequences of returning home with nothing accomplished on the energy issue.
"For Congress to go home with the energy legislation in the condition it's in now is something the vast majority in both houses don't want," one official said.
That theory will be put to the test in the coming weeks, as will the administration's entire handling of the energy legislation, the President's proclaimed, top domestic priority.
The hope in the White House is that a conference committee will hammer out an acceptable package from the House-passed version, in which most of Carter's initial proposals survive, and Senate version, where they ara barely recognizable.
The accompanying fear, however, is that a conference report that is acceptable to the administration will not make it through the Senate, ending the congressional energy debate for this year.
For that reason, the President is expected to make one last major public relations push for his energy plan about the time a conference report - assuming there is one and that it is acceptable to him - is voted on in the House and the Senate.
When the energy proposals were unveiled last April, they were accompanied by the administration's most concentrated media blitz to date. Within the space of a week, Carter gave a nationally televised energy talk to the nation, a nationally televised energy address to Congress and a nationally televised energy address to Congress and a nationally televised news conference that was dominated by questions of energy.
Moreover, the President, who more than once said he would not hesitate to appeal "directly to the people" on an issue he considered critical, was expected to keep up the public presure for enactment of his energy plan.
But if the wholesale dismantling of the energy plan in the Senate Finance Committee proved anything, it is that there are limits - even for a President as shrewd in the use of the media as Carter - in translating popular support for the concept of an energy plan into specific votes on Capitol Hill.
Nor has Carter made the wholesale assualt on behalf of his energy plan that many expected. He has not "stumped the country" for it, or made another television address or used many of the public relations devices available to him. He has, periodically and in measured deses, made carefully prepared statemewnts which sometimes seemed almost contradictory.
Two weeks ago, for example, the President appeared in the White House press briefing room to read a statement for the television cameras denouncing the success of "the special interests" in the shredding his energy legislation in the Senate. The clear implication was that the Senate, or an least its Finance Committee, was dominated by the oil and gas industry and the private utilities.
But a few days later, Carter opened a new conference with a much more conciliatory statement, calling the lobbyists opposed to him "well meaning people" and expressing understanding at the difficult issues confronting the Senate.
White House aides now argue that the success of these tactics cannot be judged until Congress is through for this year and the nation knows whether it has an energy plan, and what kind of plan it is.
"We have never said you can mobilize public support on very vote and in every committee," one aide said. "What you can create is a climate - and I think it exists - in which the failure to produce an energy plan would have serious political consequences. Of course, the downside of that is that there would be consequences for the administration as well as Congress."
Suggesting that the consequences would be much more severe for Congress, the aide added:
"If there is a real crisis, the public is going to remember two things - the President warned us and tried to do something about it, and who were the people responsible for it not being done."