Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) yesterday began what he called a final week's effort to reach agreement among Senate conferees on a natural gas pricing bill. His latest plan is to end price controls in seven years.
Since Congress reconvened Jan. 19, Jackson, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, has held almost daily meetings with different factions of the deadlocked Senate conferees trying to find a compromising position that a majority would accept and offer to the House President Carter's energy bill, which was his top priority last year, is bogged down waiting for a resolution of the gas issue. Without it, there probably will be no energy bill worth the name.
At the end of this week, the Senate will begin a 10-day recess which Jackson will spend in China.He says that if the Senate conferees don't break their deadlock this week he thinks that will mean they can't do it.
Jackson is now circulating a proposal that calls for raising the ceiling price of newly discovered natural gas from $1.48 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) to $1.84 and letting it rise annually thereafter by the cost of inflation plus 3 percent until the end of 1984, when price controls would be removed from new gas. Either the president or Congress by a resolution passed by both chambers could riempose controls for a two-year period if the deregulated price rose too high.
Last April, Carter asked Congress to raise the price of new gas to $1.75 per mcf and let it rise to compensate for inflation, but to continue controls indefinitely. Also Carter wants to extend controls to the presently unregulated intrastate gas, which is consumed in the state where produced.
The House approved Carter's plan but the Senate voted, 50 to 46, to deregulate new gas after two years. The entire Senate Energy Committee - which was split 9 to 9 on deregulation - was named to the conference with the House and have been deadlocked since they began meeting in October The death of Sen. Lee Metcalf (D-Mont.) leaves the Senate conferees divided 9 to 8 in favor of deregulation.
The Carter administration has denounced deregulation as a "ripoff" of the consumer that could cost $80 billion more in higher gas prices by 1985. But the administration, like Jackson, apparently is now prepared to accept some form of deregulation as the cost of getting an enery bill enacted.
At the White House, press secretary Jody Powell said President Carter, at this point, does not feel he should take a public position on the Jackson proposal. Carter, Powell said, "is not in a position of approving of disapproving" the proposal.
Jackson's staff said his latest proposal would cost consumers $9.2 billion more than the House bill by 1985.
Jackson needs nine votes to break the deadlock. He starts with six middle-of-the-road Democrats. Two other Democrats, Howard M. Metzenbaum (Ohio) and James Abourezk (S.D.) have been strongly opposed to deregulation, while Bennett Johnston (L.A.) and Wendell Ford (Ky.) voted for it.
Jackson hopes to pick up Ford and Johnston and possibly Metzenbaum. If a Republican such as Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) or Mark O. Hatfield (Ore.). Jackson's proposal was very close to what he considered acceptable. In broad principle it was not far different and Ford worked out just before Christmas with House Democrats. That proposal, rejected by the rest of the Senate conferees, would have permitted the price ceiling to rise to a free market level over five years and then to rise under a floating cap.
Republican conferees, Johnston, Ford and others met yesterday to discuss Jackson's plan and indicated they will make a counter proposal to him today.