As the stalemated energy bill became a year old yesterday, president Carter again exhorted Congress to pass it quickly while a group of House-Senate conferees held another in a series of closed meetings trying to settle the natural gas pricing issue that is holding it up.
The conferees recessed for dinner and planned to meet into the evening in an effort to reach at least a tentative agreement on natural gas on the anniversary date.
There were also a couple of tongue-in-cheek Republican birthday parties for the bill at the Capitol, an attempt by young House members to slow down house proceedings to protest the closed conference, and a march on the Capitol by a consumer-labor coalition trying to prevent lifting of price controls from natural gas.
Carter, who described the energy issue last year as the "moral equivalent of war," read a statement to the press saying that Congress' failure to act has "wasted 13 months of precious time . . . We cannot afford to wait any longer."
The president's program is intended to lessen United States reliance on foreign oil which cost $45 billion this past year and which he blames for the drop in the value of the dollar abroad.
Carter conceded that natural gas pricing is a difficult issue. He favored deregulation during the 1976 campaign, but a few months later made continued regulation part of his energy program.
"But now is the time to bring that congressional debate to an end," he said. "We must have further energy legislation without further delay, and I call on the Congress to fulfill its duty to the American people. When legislation requires firmness, I will continue to be firm. Where compromise is necessary, I will make reasonable compromises. And when it requires a special expression of the nation's interests, I will speak for that interest, above the special interests that have hindered our progress so far."
The natural gas deadlock has also held up congressional action on Carter's proposed energy taxes. The most important of them is a tax on domestic crude oil which the House approved but the Senate rejected. There is considerable doubt whether the tax can be revived in view of the hostile climate against new taxes in the nation. The President's advisers have recommended that he impose import fees on foreign oil if Congress falls to enact the domestic oil tax. Purpose of both would be to raise the price of oil to reduce consumption.
Asked by a reporter yesterday how long he would wait for Congress to act before taking such administrative steps, Carter replied: "I don't know yet."
The House and Senate conferees, representing far less than a majority of the conference that is trying to settle differences in the two versions of the energy bill, spent the afternoon making offers, counteroffers, holding caucuses separately always in closed session. Only one of the dozens of meetings held since Christmas has been open to the public.
House rules require conferences to be open. The members conducting the closed negotiations say these are not formal conferences but informal meetings trying to work out proposals to make to the full conference. They fear that members would not take part in full and frank talks if they were open.
In protesting the closed sessions, Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) and others led an effort to slow down House proceedings yesterday. By forcing a series of quorum calls and roll call votes, they delayed action on the lobby disclosure bill for two hours. Rep. Andrew Maguire (D-N.J.) said members could not vote intelligently on the conference report, if there ever is an energy agreement if the complicated issues are worked out in private and put to a House and Senate vote with only brief discussions.
The consumer labor group found its way to the closed meeting room in a secluded part of the Capitol and asked to be admitted and that the conferees reject gas deregulation as voted by the Senate. They talked to Rep. Harley O. Staggers (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House conferees, who sympathized with their position of regulation but said opening the meetings would not only stop the negotiations.
House Republican leaders made a birthday cake in the shape of a doughnut which Minority Leader John J. Rhodes said describes the energy situation with the nation being in a hole and Congress going around in circles.