It didn't look or sound like a filibuster, but by the time Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) had slowed the Senate to a crawl yesterday, a telltale aroma was there.
The aroma was that of natural gas and, even before a House-Senate conference agreement on gas deregulation has reached the floor. Abourezk has begun his effort to scuttle the bill.
As a runner might try a warm-up lap before a race, Abourezk ran a few parliamentary windsprints as prelude to the fight that appears to be shaping up in the Senate in the next few weeks.
Actually, it's a race that Abourezk already has run once and lost. For two weeks last fall, he and Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) filibustered the Senate version of the deregulation bill but were finally cut off.
They were silenced by a series of rulings by Vice President Mondale, who was presiding over the Senate, which startled most senators and left some ill will.
"I haven't forgotten that," Abourezk said yesterday, indicating he'll try anything that's legal - and in the Senate, almost anything is - to thwart the conferees' version of the bill.
The conference bill is expected to reach the Senate for a final vote in the next 10 days or so. It would remove federal price controls from natural gas by 1985 and is viewed as weaker than last year's Senate version.
Abourezk sees the legislation as a gargantuan consumer gouge, as do some of his liberal allies. But some gas-state senators don't think it goes far enough, which Abourezk said may mean that he already has 25 or 30 votes before the debate has begun.
He ambled onto the floor yesterday and began playing out a game that calls for slowing down other legislation, keeping gas off the floor and putting consumer pressure" on the leadership.
"There's no strategy," he said. "Just back up legislation, just back things up. The important thing is that consumers have to be alerted that [Congress is] trying to raise their gas prices - and they'll be paying double next year.
"We have more leverage on the bill this year than we had last year," Abourezk said. One thing is the pressure to adjourn by early October. Another is that foes can prolong debate over motions to recommit the bill to conference for reshaping.
For all the billions of dollars involved in the long-debated gas bill, which President Carter wants as part of his energy package, the opening round of Abourezk's slowdown was tolerant and collegial.
Some senators chuckled and joshed him. Majority Leader Robert C. Bryd (D-W. Va.) coolly chewed on a toothpick. Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.), the minority leader, burrowed wax from his ear with his little finger and smiled.
Abourezk stationed himself at a front-row desk at 11:30 a.m., when the session began, and pecked away at Byrd's efforts to handle routine business routinely.
The delays, caused by Abourezk's objection, went on for more than an hour. Byrd asked for a quorum call, to gain time. He then moved to suspend the call and Abourezk objected. Byrd laughed. The call continued but by now the clerk was reading the names slowly because it was apparent that at the noon hour a live quorum would be as elusive as an agreement on natural gas.
"Madam president, it's 12:27," Abourezk said. "What was the last name called?"
Sen. Maryon Allen (D-Ala.), whose late husband made an art of use of the rules, was presiding. She said the question was out of order.
Abourezk again was overruled when he turned his question to a parliamentary inquiry. Byrd popped up from his chair and congratulated Allen on her skill as presiding officer.
"There doesn't seem to be a lot to preside over," she responded.
The Senate then moved on to its scheduled two hours of debate on the Older Americans Act, which on the best of days might have been concluded by 3 p.m.
Abourezk made slowdown moves when he could. He asked for roll-call votes. He demanded that amendments be read in their entirely. At 6 p.m., the debate droned on, with the possibility of warapping up a pending military foreign aid bill virtually nil.
When Byrd, due to the press of business, asked unanimous consent to convene the Senate at 9:30 a.m. today instead of 10 a.m., Abourezk objected.
"We're not trying to stop anything - just back it all up," Abourezk explained. "They would have passed four bills [yesterday] otherwise."
Out in the hallway, an acquaintance peered over at Abourezk. Are you being a pain in the - again?" the friend asked.
"Yeah," responded Abourezk. The smile suggested he was relishing every needle of the pain he was inflicting.