Banking on some major legislative surgery and a renewed White House lobbying effort, supporters of a bill to establish a federal consumer agency said yesterday they could still find enough votes in the House to pass the embattled proposal this year.
But the rosy predictions of White House consumer advocate Esther Peterson and a coalition of consumer lobbies apparently failed to convince the person they were aimed at, House Speaker Thomas P. Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass).
O'Neill has told Peterson that he will not schedule a House vote on the consumer agency unless proponents of the plan can show they have the votes to pass it.
In a meeting with O'Neill last week, and in statements to reporters yesterday, Peterson expressed confidence that a revised version of the bill, eliminating some provisions that were particularly objectionable to businessmen, could win on the floor.
But O'Neill seemed dubious yesterday. He told reporters that Peterson's head count was "extremely high. I would put more credibility on our own whip count," the Speaker said.
That remark sparked a near panic among consumer groups, but they resoluately refused to surrender peterson said she would present the House leadership a member-by-member tally which she said will demonstrate that the bill could pass now.
The legislation, which would create an executive branch office to represent consumer interests before federal agencies and in court, was approved by House and Senate committees in May, with strong backing from President Carter.
But the plan ran headlong into a stiff lobbying campaign by business groups, leading some supporters of the agency to give up the cause as hopeless.
Then, about two months ago, Peterson redrafted the bill. She struck out a provision that would require manufacturers to answer agency questionaires. She added language abolishing 26 other federal consumer offices as soon as the new agency opened for business.
Peterson also agreed to provisions prohibiting the new agency from opening field offices or test laboratories.
All that made a difference. Rep. John W. Jenrette (E-S.C.), impressed by the commitment to eliminate 26 agencies, switched from opposition to support of the plan. Rep. millicent Fenwick (R-N.J.), who wrote her constituents in September that she was leaning toward a "no" vote, now says she is probably a "yes."
But it is still not clear whether enough votes can be switched.
Consumer lobbyists say the bill's chances will diminish if a vote is put off until the new session starts in January. "The members are going to go home and find businessmen right on the doorstep complaining about this bill," said Sandra Willett of the National Consumers League.