House-Senate energy conferees quit for the year yesterday unable to settle the natural gas pricing issue.
They recessed for at least a month after the Senate members rejected 16 to 2 a natural gas compromise supported only by the two senators who negotiated it with House confrees, Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) and Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.).
The plan would have continued price controls on gas but let them move up to free market level over six years. It was denounced by right and left as hurting producers and consumers and by some in the middle who called it too complicated to vote on right away.
Johnston had held out hope on Wednesday that his colleagues would support the plan when they understood it. But yesterday he abandoned the "turkey" as both ends of the political spectrum dug in hard against it. He said someone else would have to try to settle the gas issue.
In Plains, Ga., President Carter called the decision to adjourn "regrettable." The nation's energy problems, Carter said in a statement, "will not go away between now and Jan. 23 [when the conferees will reconvene]. They will simply continue to get worse."
The natural gas pricing issue has [WORD ILLEGIBLE] satisfactory solution for 23 years since the courts ruled that the federal government had the power to regulate gas piped across state lines. Carter wants to continue controls at a higher price than now and extend regulation to intrastate gas. The House went along, but the Senate sided with producers and voted to deregulate new gas after two years.
House conferees have a comfortable majority for the President's position, but the Senate conferees are split 9 to 9. And since it takes a majority of the conferees from each chamber to agree, they have remained deadlocked on the issue. Johnston, a strong supporter of deregulation, bargained with House Democrats who support the fashion a proposal that a majority of the Senate group would support. It only alienated both factions.
Natural gas has proved the toughest part of Carter's energy package to move through Congress. The entire package will remain alive in its present form for the second session, which begins Jan. 19. But if natural gas pricing proved impossible to resolve this year, it may face an even more unfriendly climate in the election year of 1978.
If there is no natural gas solution, that would probably make more difficult enactment of the crude oil equalization tax which Carter calls the centerpiece of his energy-saving package. If there is to be no deregulation or higher price for gas, there will be more pressure to give a big chunk of the oil tax back to the oil producers - who are also gas producers.
Carter wants to rebate the tax revenues to consumers. Conference action on the crude oil tax - which was passed by the House but rejected by the Senate - has been delayed until conferees finish action on natural gas.
Yesterday's conference meeting where the gas compromise was formally buried was taken up largely with ideological speeches that have characterized its gas discussions.
Sen. John A. Durkin (D-N.H.) called the Johnston compromise "the moral equivalent of mugging the consumer on Christmas eve."
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) called the proposal no compromise. "You can have deregulation in more ways than one," he said. "When the price reaches a free market level if really doesn't matter whether you have regulation or not."
Sen. Clifford P. Hansen (R.Wyo.) said the President had failed to exercise leadership in the effort to get a gas bill. Carter says deregulation would cost consumers $70 billion to S80 billion more than his approach by 1985. Republicans contend it would save that much which consumers otherwise would have to pay for more expensive alternative fuels.