President Carter's long-stalled energy bill got past a major obstacle yesterday as House conferees voted 13 to 12 for gradual lifting of price controls from natural gas.
The full House-Senate energy conference will meet today for only the second time this year. There the House will formally offer the compromise to the Senate group, which is expected to accept it by a similarly close margin.
It has taken the conferees six months to come this far in settling their wide differences on natural gas pricing, and managers of the bill laid out a schedule that sounded as though it could take most of the rest of this session to get an omnibus energy bill to the president, even without the wellhead tax on domestic crude oil, which he calls the centerpiece of his energy conservation program.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), House floor manager of the natural gas part of the bill, said it would take staff four to six weeks to put the natural gas plan into legislative language. Then it must be approved again by both chambers, and faces the likelihood of another filibuster in the Senate.
The reason it has taken so long and will take longer to get agreement on natural gas is that is a multi-billion-dollar issue on which House and Senate originally went in opposite directions. The House approved Carter's plan to continue price controls at higher levels than now and extend regulation to intrastate gas consumed in the state where produced.
The Senate accepted the industry's contention that deregulation is the only way to assure adequate supply, and voted to end controls on newly discovered gas after two years. Congress has argued over natural gas pricing for a quarter of a century.
The compromise narrowly approved by the House conferees would deregulate new gas by 1985, but would empower either the president or Congress to reimpose controls for one 18-month period that could extend through the end of 1988.
In return for agreeing to end controls o new gas, House members who favored continued controls won the principle that this would require large industrial users to bear gas price increase until price reaches the level of alternate fuels. At that point residential and other small consumers would share in the price increase.
Estimates of what this means in more payments to gas producers varies from $9 billion to 4 to 5 times that much between now and 1985. The administration had denounced deregulation now as a "ripoff" of consumers that would cost up to $70 billion more than existing law by 1985. But after six months of trying to get something, the administration is willing to take what it can get.
Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), who led the fight yesterday against the deregulation compromise, said that most House conferees favored continued regulation, but agreed to lifting controls because of a "desire to get a bill at almost any cost."
Rep. Harley O. Staggers (D-W. Va.), conference chairman, who has fought deregulation during his 30 years in the House, backed the compromise as the "best solution we can get."
House Democratic leaders put together the bare majority of 13 votes last week when three producing-state members worked out a compromise they say would help both consumers and producers within their states.
The compromise was supported by 13 Democrats. It was opposed by all eight Republican conferees and Democrats Moffett, Charles A. Vanik (Ohio:, James C. Corman (Calif: and Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.). The Senate conferees appear divided 9 to 8 in favor of it.
This agreement contains all major natural gas issues, but there are some differences still to be resolved today or later this week.
That would still leave unresolved the tax part of the energy bill, including the crude oil tax, which many observers consider dead, and a tax on industrial use of oil and gas, which passed both chambers in different form.
House leaders had insisted until recently on keeping the energy bill in one big package. But as time began running out and the need to pick up another vote for the gas compromise appeared, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) began talking about splitting off the tax part and letting it go it alone. That apparently is still the plan, and it won the vote of Rep. Henry S. Reuss (D-Wis.), who strongly opposes the crude oil tax and did not want the energy bill to wait for it.