Having emerged relatively intact from a four-month sojourn in the House, the waterway tll bill went back to the Senate yesterday and quickly became enmeshed, once again, in a three-way parliamentary involving Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Russell B. Long (D-La.), and President Carter.
At the end of a complicated legislative day, Sen. Domenici had once again won the support of the president and seemed to have a fair chance of prevailing a second time over Sen. Long.
Domenici is the sponsor of the waterway bill, which would require barge lines, for the first time in history, to pay for their use of federally maintained inland waterways. Long, whose state boasts two of the world's largest barge ports, has been the bill's leading cognressional adversary.
Last spring Domenici won Senate passage of the bill through a strategy of linking the waterway charge to legislation authorizing a major new barge improvement on the Mississippi at Alton, Ill. Carter cemented this Domenici connection by threatening to veto a bill authorizing the project at Alton if a waterway fee was not approved along with it.
With the Alton authorization providing the implus, Domenici won Senate passage in June and the measure moved to the House where the pressure for the Alton facility once again overcame aversion to the waterway toll.
However, the House, which approved the bill last week, watered down the waterway toll considerably. Instead of the Senate-passed fee structure, which would eventually recover almost all of the federal government's annual waterway spending, the House approved a mild fuel tax that would recoup less than 10 per cent of the government's annual cost.
When the bill went back to the Senate, Long was resolved to ditch the Domenici plan and push for Senate approval of the House version. He seemed in a strong position to do just that, because the House fuel tax, like any proposed tax, would be referred automatically to the Finance Committee - which Long chairs.
Or would it?
Three weeks ago Domenici and his staff aide, Hal Brayman, started thinking about that referral to Long's committee. After numerous conferences, with parliamentarian Murray Zweben, Brayman found a way to avoid it in the arcane language of Senate Rule 14.
Accordingly, Domenici was one of a handful of senators on the floor at 9:05 a.m. yesterday when Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) started working through the routine business of referring this bill and reporting that one.
While a reading clerk was droning through a required recitation of the House-passed waterway bill, Domenici jumped up.
"I object to any further consideration of this measure," he said, and under Rule 14, that was enough. The bill could not be referrred to Finance Committee or any other committee. It ould move immediately to the final calendar, where it would be scheduled for a floor vote. That would let Domenici substitute the original Senate bill for the House version, without the intervention by Long.
Long, though, who has learned a good deal about parliamentary procedure in his 29 years in Congress, was undisturbed. Less than an hour after Domenici's floor ploy, Long gathered the Finance Committee for a "MARKUP" SESSION ON THE WATERWAY BILL.
Although the measure had not formally been referred to the Finance Committee, Long knew that his panel could make a recommendation anyway, bringing it to the floor as an amendament in the form of a substitute. The "amendament" that Long had in mind was the mild fuel tax passed by the House.
Then Carter stepped in. As the Finance Committee members were entering the meeting they received copies of a letter from Transportation Secretary Brock Adams, asserting that the House bill was not good enough.
Adams reiterated Carter's earlier threat. The Alton project would be vetoed unless the Senate passed a "substantial" waterway toll. What would be "substantial" was left unstated except for the observation that the House version was not "substantial" enough.
Long was plainly peeved. "I'd be inclined to call their bluff," he said. But other committee members were anxious to have the Alton project approved and they convinced the chairman to reconsider.
Long, therefore, scheduled a committee hearing on the waterway toll for Friday afternoon, and seemed to recognize that he might have to give in once more to the Domenici-Carter combination.