The natural gas "compromise" worked out by a small group of House-Senate negotiators Tuesday evening isn't selling and the issue is expected to be put over until Congress returns next month.
Sen. J. Bennett Johnson (D-La.), chief architect of the proposal, conceded yesterday his Senate colleagues won't accept it now, but predicted they will approve it in January after they have time to consider the complicated proposal and talk with their constituents.
The negotiators, trying to break a 9-to-9 deadlock among Senate conferees between supporters of continued price controls and deregulation, thought they had something everyone could accept when they fashioned an agreement that continued price controls but would let them rise to a free market level that would make them meaningless. The proposal would also extend price controls to intrastate gas, as President Carter wants, but would exempt intrastate gas from any other federal regulation, including allocation of interastate gas to meet shortages elsewhere.
But the immediate effect yesterday was to alienate both ends of the political spectrum who cried that the plan trod on the rights of consumers or producers.
First indication that he compromise between Johnston, champion of producers, and House supporters of price controls was in trouble came when a White House meeting to present the plan to Carter was called off and the President issued a cautious statement that amounted to no comment until his people had looked at it and he had touched his political bases.
Then everyone at the Capitol who was involved began holding press conferences.
Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) only House conferee involved in the talks to oppose the plan, said his House colleagues "gave too much away," especially in faiing to insist on full federal regulation of the intrastate market.
Moffett gave high marks to Johnton for out-bargining the Hose. "We were dealing with a new Cool Hand Luke of Capitol Hill in Bennett Johnston," said Moffett. "He came in there for the producers and got a deal I can hardly believe he got. If we gave them concessions, he gobbled them up and came back with five more."
Moffett said he planned to telephone the President, who flew to Georgia for the holidays, to register his opposition.
There is no official standing to the agreement. What it amounts to is the House conferees telling Johnston how far they are willing to go in compromise. Then it is up to him to try to sell it to a majority of the 18 Senate conferees.
Sen. Dewey F. Bartlett (R-Okla.) and other Republican supporters of the gas industry let Johnston know yesterday that they were opposed to the plan because it continued the principle of price controls and extended them to the intrastate market.
Finally, Johnston called his own news conference to say that the plan serves the interests of consumers and producers. He said the fact that it is opposed by both ends of the political spectrum indicates it is a pretty good compromise. And he predicted that it will be approved by a "coalition of middle" after there had been ample time to study it.
But he conceded that at the moment he does not have a majority of the Senate conferees in support of it. Until that majority gets behind some proposal, there can be no conference action to resolve the differences between the Senate vote for deregulation and the House vote supporting Carter's plan for continued regulation at higher prices.
In face, Johnston said he was only sure of the support of himself and Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-ky.), who sat with him in the closed meetings with the House members. Bartlett, at a separate news conference, gave a similar reading on the lineup of the 18 Senate conferees.
Johnston said Secretary of Energy James R. Schlesinger Jr. told him he supports the agreement. But Carter has committed himself not to take a position until he has talked to various interest groups, Johnston said.
An important figure in the struggle is Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, who has been absent during the talks because of family illness on the West Coast. Jackson, leader of Carter's supporters, sent word yesterday that the compromise is "not in the national interest" because it fails to take full federal control of the intrastate market.
But Johnston's statement was more conciliatory than those of some of his colleagues. He said the negotiations have "laid the foundation for a settlement . . . made clear where the final give and take must occur when Congress reconvenes in January."
The full 43-member House-Senate conference has been called to meet today but is expected to take no action.
The staff of the House energy subcommittee estimated the cost of the compromise at about $8 billion above the cost of the House-administration bill by 1985. The Department of Energy put the cost at about $11 billion above the House bill. But this was far less than the $50 billion or more than opponents contended would be the price by 1985 of full deregulation.
The Johnston compromise would have raised the price of newly dscovered gas form the present level of $1.46 per thousand cubic feet (MCF) to $1.75 as proposed by Carter, instead of higher figures above $2 urged by deregulation supporters. Fox six years the price would rise by the amount of inflation plus 4.5 per cent. Then it could move up higher under a floating cap tied to average gas prices of the previous six months not to exceed 15 per cent a year. Johnston said the price ceiling should reach a free market level fater six years.
The negotiators compromised the definition of new gas eligible for the higher prices Principal opposition came to the action extending controls to the currently unregulated intrastate market. Members supporting producers though it went too far. Consumer champions said it didn't go far enough.