The death Thursday of Sen. Lee Metcalf (D-Mont.) could affect the outcome of the House-Senate conference on President Carter's called energy bill.
Metcalf was a member of the Senate conference which was split 9 to 9 on the fundamental issue of removing federal price controls from natural gas. He opposed deregulation, and his death leaves deregulation forces on the Senate delegation with a one-vote edge.
But the House delegation opposes deregulation, as does Carter, and with the question of Metcalf's replacement up in the air, it remains uncertain how or whethered the impasse will be broken.
The major problem is that the House and Senate went in opposite directions on deregulation. The House approved Carter's plan to continue natural gas price controls at higher levels and extend regulation to gas consumed in the state where it is produced. The Senate voted to deregulate newly discovered gas, which would mean billions of dollars to producers as prices rise.
Compromising diametrically opposed positions on such an emotional issue would be difficult by the 9-9 split among the Senate conferees. When they broke up before Christmas, the senators had been unable to take the necessary first step, to agree on a proposed compromise to submit to the House conferees.
When last heard from, the Senate conferees were rejecting, 16 to 2, a compromise worked out by two Senate Democratic supporters of deregulation and half a dozen House Democrats who favored price comtrols.
Their plan was to continue regulation but let the price rise to a free market level so regulation wouldn't mean much. They hoped both elements on the Senate side could live with this. But it was rejected by all except the two who negotiated it, Sens. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) and Wendell Ford (D-Ky.).The right said it was continued regulation. The left said it was a giveaway to the industry.
The December negotiations were made more difficult by the fact that none of Carter's leading supporters on the Senate side attended the meetings with Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), Thomas L. Ashley (D-Ohio) and others. Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), chairman of the Energy Committee and Carter's chief Senate supporter, was on the west coast because the family illness and largely out of touch with the talks.
Jackson rejected the Dingell-Johnston compromise, but in a soft statement which said the talks had laid the foundation for a settlement.
If the Senate conferees and then the full conference are to reach agreement, the key to it may lie in federal regulation of the presently uncontrolled intrastate market. Johnston and Ford agreed to federal price control of intrasate gas. Jackson wants to go further and permit allocation of intrastate gas.
Gas-producing states are strongly opposed to losing control over its use. Jackson insists on allocation. Ashley, chairman of the House and hoc energy committee, said he believes the issue is negotiable and will lead to a gas settlement.
It is generally assumed that if the gas issue is resolved, the energy tax dispute will be settled rather quickly.
The House approved Carter's proposed taxes on domestic crude oil, industrial use of oil and natural gas and gas guzzling autos. The Senate rejected the crude oil and gas guzzler taxes and approved a cutdown version of the industrial use tax. The tax conferees have conditonally approved a gas guzzler tax. Their main dispute is whether there should be a crude oil tax and whether its revenue should be debated to the public as Carter wants or part be given to the oil industry in the form of production incentives.
The Senate might decide to leave Metcalf's place vacant and its conferees split 9 to 8 in favor of deregulation. This would more truly reflect the Senate's 50 to 46 vote for deregulation, and would at least enable the Senate group to muster a majority vote for a proposal to offer the pro-Carter House conferees.
Jackson might ask the Senate to appoint a conferee who holds Metcalf's views on price controls. Or supporters of deregulation, tired of the long statement, might ask the Senate to appoint another supporter of deregulation. It wasn't clear yesterday which approach the Senate leadership would support. Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) would not discuss it and Jackson could not be reached.