THE ENERGY BILL quietly slipped another deadline last week. The only sound was an occasional whirring - the sound that a car makes when it's stuck in the snow and the back wheels are digging themselves deeper into their ruts. A week ago Sen. Henry Jackson (D-WASH.), chairman of the Energy Committee, offered a prediction that if the quarrel over natural gas was not solved by this weekend the bill would never be passed. Later he softened that judgment, but he may have been right the first time. In any event the natural-gas question remains just about where it has always been, and so Friday Sen. Jackson departed on a trip to China. Very little is likely to happen before he returns, and that pushes any further progress into March - at best.
How damaging is this latest delay? The various factions in the congressional conference committee are reported to be close to settlement on gas - closer than ever before. That's hopeful. But it's hard to forget that the past several months have been a succession of near misses. Last November, all well-informed people confidently assured each other that the bill would certainly be enacted by the end of the year. That didn't happen. But there were cheery assurances from the Capitol that a few weeks one way or the other didn't make much difference and Congress would certainly move promptly when it reconvened in January. Now it's mid-February, and Congress has left town again for its Lincoln's Birthday break.
These repeated delays are severely undercutting the bill. Some of the rising hazards are matters of scheduling. The House Ways and Means Committee, for example, will take up the administration's tax-reduction bill in the first week of March. If the tax cuts aren't passed this summer, unemployment may be rising by this time next year as a result. But the administration will have a tough time persuading Congress to raise oil taxes for the sake of conservation, while simultaneously urging it to cut income taxes for the sake of economic growth. If the present drift continues, by midsummer both the energy bill and the tax bill will be in the pocket of the formidablr chairman of the Finance Committee, Sen. Russell Long (D-La.), whose bargaining power will rise proportionately with congressional anxiety to go home for the autumn campaign.
As a matter of political atmosphere, all of the divisions over the bill will grow more intractable with the approach of the election. This bill does not swing on any issue, with a simple pro or con. It is a vast pattern of separate and competing interests - of regions, of different producers, of users divided among themselves by type of fuel and type of use. The delays have already destroyed the momentum of the bill. Any impulse to national sacrifice has vanished in the endless contention over points incomprehensible to any but the insiders. There is now a spreading impression that the White House has run out of both ideas and initiative. Each delay makes further progress less likely.
The failure to reach a settlement on gas last week was not for want of trying. Mr. Jackson and most of the conferees, by all accounts, were working extremely hard to find a compromise. Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger and the administration forces were working equally hard. But nothing happened. By the way, even if the gas quarrel were miraculously resovled today, the passage of the bill would still be distant and uncertain. The hardest issues are the taxes, and the conferees have not yet even begun discussing them.
President Carter now faces an unpleasantly simple choice. He can take a much more direct, personal and forceful part in pushing the bill forward. Or he can abandon it. If he decides to stay with the bill, he will have to deal directly and continously with Congress. In effect, he will have to bring the negotiations right into his ooffice and hold them there until they succeed. That is a very risky course. The President is not particulary good at that kind of bargaining. He might have to deal away, personally, some of his positions and principles at a certain cost to his prestige. But if he goes the other way and abandons his energy bill now, the damage to his standing and to his capacity to lead, here and abroad, will be irreparable.
In his State of the Union message last month, Mr. Carter spoke with approval of limited government does not become, in practice, weak and uncertain government. To let the talks over the energy bill keep on spinning, with one delay leading to the next, only increases confusion and procrastination. Americans, including those in Congress, need to begin making decisions right now, for their own good and the country's, about the way they use energy bill, this is the time to pick it up and carry it.