The closer they come to a final vote on a compromise version of President Carter's energy program, the more many members of Congress are troubled by its shape and its eventual political impact.
In a series of recent interviews, numerous members of Congress, aides and lobbyists agreed that the negative political repercussions from an energy program that raises prices and oil company profits without significantly affecting the "energy crisis" could be serious. And the compromise now likely to emerge from a Senate-House conference committee would do just that.
Liberals who supported Carter's original plan are troubled that the new version is too generous to the oil industry and too miserly to poorer Americans. Many conservatives (and liberals, too) continue to believe that the imposition of enormous new taxes to achieve energy conservation is a misbegotten idea.
And yet, members of Congress, their aides and interested lobbyists seem generally to expect that a compromise package will be approved - albeit without enthusiasm - by both chambers sometime next month. They make this prediction while acknowledging that the likely compromise package "does not have an impassioned advocate anywhere in the United States Congress," as one administration official put it.
The reason an unpopular and confusing energy program is likely to pass Congress and be signed into law tell a good deal about the politics of Washington.
Carter, numerous sources agreed, now appears willing to approve an energy package that strays far from the original program he submitted to Congress last April.
"He needs a bill right now," one congressional aide said, describing Carter's political investment in the energy situation, "the moral equivalent of war," as the President has called it. "He'll sign anything as long as it has the word 'energy' in it," his aide added.
Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger indicated the administration's flexibility at a news conference Monday, specifically suggesting a willingness to raise still farther the prices oil and gas producers can receive for their products.
Carter's associates have said repeatedly that the fate of the energy program will largely determine the success or failure of his first year in office. With this in mind, one official of an environmental group here said Carter would now be expected to "declare a victory" on energy, almost without regard for the contents of the final package.
In Congress, several sources said Carter's willingness to accept a substantially altered (and softened) energy package makes it easier for members of the House and Senate to pass one along for his signature.
One theory in Congress, according to Marty Rogol, a lobbyist for Ralph Nader's Congress Watch, is that the House and Senate should give Carter what he says he wants, then blame him if and when it fails to produce dramatic or desired results. Other sources agreed that his attitude could motivate a substantial number of Congress members who will eventually vote on the compromise package of new taxes, incentives and higher energy prices.
Other factors are pushing many toward affirmative votes on a compromise. An important one is the role of the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate. They are committed to giving the President an energy program - their prestige is now at stake.
"The exercise has gone too far for them not to produce a piece of legislation," according to one administration official. "That's probably the best thing we've got going for us."
Another factor favoring the program are the concerns of voters - particularly in the Midwest and Northeast - about repeated natural gas shortages this winter or next that could again result in massive school and factory closings. "That's what my people care about," one senator from a Northeastern state said. "They want to be sure they won't lose their jobs because of gas shortages."
A vote for the energy program, this senator reckons, will look back home like a vote to do something to head off crisis like last winter's.
Many Democratic members of the House and Senate are concerned about the political impact of abandoning their new Democratic President on his first major domestic issue. Party loyalists want to find reasons to support the program to avoid contributing to Carter's political troubles.
And, on the merits of the issues involved, powerful interests that can sway votes in Congress are lining up behind the softened compromise package.
The compromises that now appear likely to emerge from conference would provide billions in new revenues for oil and gas producers. Some specialists believe they will get more from the program than they ever thought possible.
This is one of the most cited reasons many members of Congress are uncomfortable with the potential political impact of the program. "It started out to be a good idea," said a congressional staff member, "and turned out to be something of a fiasco."
The original Carter program, which the House largely endorsed, would have raised prices and oil company profits substantially, but also would have rebated billions of dollars to consumers. Now the rebates appear doomed, and the prices and profits will increase much more than under the House version.
And government projections show that the energy program will not change the basic trends of increased imports (and thus increase balance of payments deficits) and increased consumption in the next decade.
The aspects of Carter's original program that would have had the greatest impact on oil consumption were the measures designed to push industry to convert from oil and gas to coal. These have been greatly weakened, and one congressional analyst predicted that in the end they will provide relatively insignificant savings.
"I don't think there's any question about the fact that the plan is going to be a political liability," said Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.).
Weicker, who has advocated rationing of oil, said Carter had the chance to impose a truly tough conservation program in his first year which - by the end of his term - might have made him look heroic.
The President had "an enormous political opportunity which would have entailed some political risks . . . but the results would have been well worth it," Weicker said.
Now, he said, Carter has raised popular expectations with his rhetoric but will have to sign an energy program that cannot fulfill those expectations. "The greatest political risk was in not achieving results by the end of his term," Weicker said - and that is now what will happen, he predicted.
Rep. Thomas L. Ashley (D-Ohio), chairman of the House ad hoc energy committee and a Carter loyalist on energy, disputed that view. He said the President would get political credit for being the first chief executive to squarely face the energy issues.
Ashley acknowledged that this year's energy program could not produce dramatic results, but said it would be "just a beginning," and "not the only piece of energy legislation we're going to pass."
Could Ashley sell the program in those terms to his constituents in Toledo? "Well, no," he replied. The country still has to be educated, he added. "Fully, half the people I represent," he said, believe that the only energy problem now is the "banditry" of the oil companies.
In other comments yesterday Ashley indicated that the negotiations which are supposed to produce a final energy package in the next few weeks are still extremely delicate. He sharply criticized Schlesinger for offering new compromises to the oil companies. That "didn't help," Ashley said. It wasn't Schlesinger's role to offer compromises when a congressional conference was under way, he added.
Ashley said that time was working against a successful compromise, and that members were liable to become increasingly disenchanted with the high taxes in the program as the conference drags on.
The conferees are due to resume formal meetings next Monday.
Staff writer Richard L. Lyons contributed to this report.