House Senate conferees met again yesterday and again did nothing but complain that they appear unable to settle the big issues that divide them.
The big issues boil down to how much of an oil and natural gas price increase President Carter must give to get the energy-saving oil and gas taxes he wants along with extension of natural gas price controls to the intrastate market.
The House and Senate went in opposite directions on these issues in passing their original versions of the energy bill, and there has been no visible narrowing of the differences during public meetings of the conferees.
There have been some closed-door meetings to try to get negiotations moving, notably last weekend between Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russel B. Long (D.La.), who wants a higher price for oil and gas producers, and Rep. Thomas L. Ashley (D-Ohio), personal representative on the conference of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) who supports Carter.
Ashley said various proposals were discussed but that no agreements were reached or sought. "If there is anything to be optimistic about," he said yesterday in reference to reports that agreement appeared near, "we all deserve an award for acting."
The conference trying to settle the natural gas pricing issue is unable to move because the Senate conferences are divided 9 to 9, one side for the Senate's position to deregulate and one side for Carter's proposal to continue price controls at higher levels and extend them to cover gas consumed in the state where produced.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) said the nine supporting the President will insist that any natural gas bill continue regulation of all new interstate and intrastate natural gas, that there be no phasing out of controls and that new gas eligible for a higher price be limited to new reservoirs as in the House bill. Jackson said his group would agree to a "small increase" in price above the $1.75 per thousand cubic feet proposed by the President. This would be very close to the President's bill.
Without these principles, said Jackson, "there will be no natural gas bill this year."
The Senate conferees deadlock on several tie voters during the day. Jackson said it was obvious that the Senate conferees were at an impasse. Ashley agreed that apparently the first step toward comprosing the gas issue will have to be taken by the House.
Across the street, in the House Ways and Means Committee Room where the conferees on the tax parts of the energy packages have met for three weeks and also achieved very little, Chairman Al Ulman (D-Ore.) said it is obvious that there will not be time for Congress to take final action on the energy bill this year.
That assumes Congress will act on nothing until it has settled the natural gas and tax issues. It could pass three lesser parts of the packages that have won conference approval. They deal with conversion of industry to coal, encouraging changes in electric utility rate structures to save energy and a catchall conservation program. But House conferees have agreed not to break the packages into pieces.
Ullman urged Long to get down to voting on the taxes. But Long wasn't ready.
"I've been searching for answers," said Long, "I can't see the answer right now. But I think the potential is there as long as the will is there."
Ullman insisted that "we're going to have to come to the point where your conferees vote and our conferees vote. We've been through all the rhetoric. We're down to the point where we have to make decisions."
Long offered to vote on whether to repeal the income tax deduction for state gasoline taxes as the House proposed. But he wasn't ready to vote on the crucial issues of crude oil tax, industrial use tax or gas guzzler tax. He presumably wants to see the outcome on gas before he makes an agreement on oil.