THE SOUND OF camel bells, mellifluous and insistent, is now clearly audible over the quarrel about the natural-gas bill. The Great Congressional Bazaar is open for business, and the bidding is brisk. Until this point, the politics of natural-gas pricing had been largely ideological, and a lot of the ideology was pretty trivial. The McClure episode has changed that drastically.
The outcome may well be the final disaster for the natural-gas bill, and with it President Carter's whole energy plan. So it was not surprise that a natural-gas compromise was listed high among the purposes of the president's decision yesterday to return to Washington from vacation on Wednesday, two days ahead of schedule. In a desperate attempt to recruit a crucial vote for the natural-gas compromise, the administration has entangled it in the dire politics of the breeder reactor. Because the breeder generates plutonium, it opens questions far more portentous than the price of gas. But at the same time the breeder program, with its heavy research and construction budgets, constitutes patronage on a big scale. Along with public issues of the deepest importance, the gas bill is being swept into the endless haggling over where federal dollars are to be spent.
The administration needed the vote of Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) to get its natural-gas bill from the conference committee to the Senate floor. The Secretary of Energy, James R. Schlesinger, suggested to Mr. McClure that the Carter administration was preparing to increase the funds for research on reactor fuels. Mr. McClure gave his assent to the gas bill - and then claimed to have won from the administration an important expansion of the nuclear program, which he supports. At that, Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) swung vehemently into opposition. As for the administration, it denied that it had changed its plans at all. Secretary Schlesinger declares that it did nothing but point out to Sen. McClure the decisions that it had already made. Sen. McClure says that he extracted a deal; Mr. Schlesinger says that there was no deal. Who's right? Present evidence is inconclusive. But one thing is beyond argument. This incident vastly widens the controversy over the tortured gas bill.
To follow the patronage aspects, it is helpful to know that the Energy Department's Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, with some 9,500 jobs, is a large presence in a small state. The Idaho Lab does work on the development of nuclear fuels. The administration evidently intends to expand that work, but remains adamant in its opposition to building the Clinch River breeder reactor. Clinch River is in Tennessee, and Sen. Baker, the minority leader, is considerably more important to the final passage of energy bills than Sen. McClure. The administration has inadvertently persuaded both of them that it is shifting money out of Mr. Baker's state into Mr. McClure's.
At another level, the issue is the search for a breeder-reactor fuel cycle that does not use plutonium, or at least does not use it in the dangerous and accessible form that Clinch River would produce. There are a number of senators who are open to negotiation on natural gas, but not on the breeder reactor and plutonium. That is the dilemma of this kind of bargaining over key votes.
The McClure vote was essential to move the bill the next inch, but it was obtained in a way that now jeopardizes final passage altogether. Whether there was a specific deal doesn't really make much difference. It is beyond dispute that the administration drew a connection between the gas bill and the breeder reactor. The defeat of the bill would be bad for the administration, and bad for the country. But avoiding that defeat has suddenly become more difficult than ever.