If they can walk over us on energy, what's to prevent them from doing it on other issues? The significance of this fight goes way beyond energy.

White House official, October, 1977

For most of the fall, senior White House officials have been saying that President Carter's first year in office could be judged by the fate of his energy program in Congress. By that standard, according to numerous congressional and administration sources, 1977 can now be judged a failure for Jimmy Carter.

The administration's ackowledgment that it is now impossible to get energy legislation enacted this year represents more than a brief postponement or temporary setback, according to many well-placed lobbyists, legislators and officials.

The thing has fallen flat on the floor," according to an oil industry lobbyist who has been pressing for an energy package.

Others are more upbeat, but pessimism is widespread.

According to the most pessimistic view, the administration has now missed its best chance to get an energy program enacted. "We won't see another window like this for at least four years," a former federal energy official said.

Accordinng to this view, the momentum created by Carter's energy messages last April and speedy House approval of most of his program last summer plus the implicit pressure Carter applied this fall, particularly when he canceled his world trip last month, created his world trip last month, created the best possible conditions for early passage of the legislation.

Next year, according to this pessimistic analysis, the momentum will have dissipated. If they spend the holiday month at home, members of Congress will hear many complaints about unpopular aspects of the Carter program, particularly its high taxes. Then in January they will be interested in a new agenda - most of it provided by Carter himself.

Most tantalizing in an election year will be the administration's new package of tax cuts, expected early in 1978. The Panama Canal treaties fight will heat up next year, and Carter's first budget proposal will provide mush grist for the legislative mill. With all this before it, will Congress want to turn back to energy, and pass huge new taxes on top of the whopping increase in Social Security taxes expected to pass both houses this week?

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Vice President Mondale took the view that the energy conferees - who have been stalled for weeks - could reach agreements "in principle" this week, enabling both houses to pass the energy package early next year. It is difficult to find a source in the Capitol who thinks it will be that easy.

One House leader said yesterday that Carter's best asset in the next session may be the legislators' guilt over their failure to enact an energy program after spending most of 1977 talking about it.

Another potential administration ally is the oil and gas lobby, which now stands to lose billions of dollars in potential revenue if Congress does not enact the energy package.

Moreover, the leaders of both Houses have promised to produce a program for the President, so they will continue to press for one in January. But there is no guarantee that they can find the basis for a compromise that could pass both the House and Senate next year. A source close to Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said yesterday that the agreement in principle Mondale spoke about now appears out of reach.

Although Carter canceled his world trup last month because "his personal involvement was vital" in congressional deliberations on energy (in the words of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance), administration and congressional sources say that Carter has played no direct, substantive role in those deliberations.

The White House strategy, according to administration officals, was to let the House and Senate conferees struggle with their radiaclly different versions of the program until the vague outlines of compromise emerged. At that point, Carter would try to step in and mold a final agreement.

But that point never came, and the President never acted. Nor did any of his associates. The adminstration has never consultations with the key House and Senate conferees during the eight weeks that the conference has dragged on.

One adminstration lobbyist who fears the trategy was misbegotten said yesterday the White House adopted "a very laid back approach."

Other sources said the White House relied too heavily on advice from the House and Senate leadership and abdicated the power to make its own decisions about when to try to influence the energy conferees.

But even critics of White House strategy agree that there was never a guarantee that any action by the President would have produced a compromise energy package.

A cross-section of sources in the oil and gas industries, the administration and Congress yesterday offered these reasons for the President's failure to get the energy program he wanted in 1977:

The administration plan sank of its own weight. Prepared in secret at a breakneck pace, Carter's proposals went to the Congress with little advance consultation, either with key members of House and Senate, or with the oil industries that would bonny ferociously, or even with memners of the administration outside the closed group of specialists around Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger. Later it emerged that the numbers supporting the plan were subject to question. Schlesinger's staff drew up what was largely a tax plan, but did so without consulting tax experts elsewhere in the administration. The day it was announced, the admimistration could not describe the precise impact its program would have on an average American household.

Administration salesmanship was erratic. Carter began it by proclaiming the moral equivalent of war, but within a week was saying that it wouldn't really affect the American standard of living, and would increase employment. The White House intensively lobbied the House on energy, and won most of its program there last summer. By Carter's own admission, though, the Senate was all but ignored until September. In October the President lashed out at the oil companies for demanding what amounted to "potential wartime profiteering" at the very moment that members of Schlesinger's staff were working to reach compromises with the oil industry that would have given it billions in new revenue.