President Carter canceled his overseas trip to nurse his energy bill through a House-Senate conference, but the slow-moving conferees left town yesterday for a nine-day recess that will consume most of the time he would have been gone.
Senate conferees on the nontax part of the bill rejected a plea from House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. that they meet at least the first part of Thanksgiving week to clear away some of the many differences remaining. They said there wouldn't be enough members around to get anything done and that the meeting would just be to give the appearance of progress.
O'Neill's prestige is on the line. He has vowed to pass the omnibus energy bill this year - the biggest bill in his first year as Speaker - and time is moving faster than the conferees.
They have been meeting for five weeks and the most difficult issues of taxes and natural gas pricing lie ahead. Their Thanksgiving target has gone by and if they don't produce a bill by Christmas the pressure will be great to let final action slide over to the next session, which begins Jan. 19. That could lead to complicationns such as drawn-out final debate and getting mixed up with the Panama Canal treaties.
O'Neill took the unusual step of trying to exert pressure on senators because they had been loudest at conference sessions this week in opposition to meeting next week.
After a morning of little progress on proposals to tie electric utility systems together to conserve energy, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) announced he had been called by Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), absent chairman of the Senate conferees, to say he, Jackson, had been called by O'Neill, who felt the conferees should meet the first part of next week.
Johnston, who has been the actual leader of the Senate conferees should meet the first part of next week.
Johnston, who has been the actual leader of the Senate conferees during most of their talks, said he thought the conference should be suspended next week to give a rest to a staff that has been working nights and weekends to draft proposals and counter-proposals. Also, Johnston has made plans to be away next week.
Rep. Thomas L. Ashley (D-Ohio), O'Neill's personal representative on the conference, urged the Senate to show up Monday and Tuesday. He noted that the President had canceled his trip and expressed concern about the "public perception" of Congress going home for nine days, leaving "the most important legislation in several years" undone. "" I talked with the speaker," said Ashley. "If we could have a presence here Monday and Tuesday . . ."
Johnston said the time might be used letting members make their speeches about the explosive issue of natural gas pricing. "That could save a couple of days later on," he said.
But Sen. John A. Durkin (D.N.H.) protested that "if we're just going to come in and diddle around for three hours there's no point."
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said he gathered from the discussion that the only reason for meeting next week would be that since the President canceled his trip it wouldn't look good for Congress to take the week off. Metzenbaum said that for 10 months he had been working early and late on the energy issue and he was willing to work 12-hour days starting week after next. But he moved that the Senate not attend conferences next week, and his Senate colleagues agreed.
Rep. Harley O. Staggers (D-Wy.) said that there wouldn't be any point in House members meeting by themselves so he called off the conference until Nov. 28 when he vowed to carry out his frequent threat to meet evenings.