President Carter yesterday intensified his campaign for the controversial natural gas deregulation bill inviting critics to the White House and personally appealing to them "to put aside any reservations you might have about specific details" and support the "crucial" measure.
Speaking to a group of businessmen in the East Room of the White House, Carter said that defeat of the bill would have a "devastating" impact on American's world standing, and that this impact is much more important than any specific argument about the bill.
Earlier, addressing a dozen state governors with evident emotion, the president said defeat of the bill, which would raise gas prices substantially over the next several years, "will have a devastating effect on our national image, on the value of the dollar, on our trade balance, on inflation."
Carter's strong language is part of an intense administration effort to win the support of powerful interest groups in the remaining days before the Senate votes on the legislation, which the administration regards as crucial to its plan to cut energy imports.
Judging by interview with participants in several of the meetings organized by the administration in recent days, this effort is having some success.
The president, his secretary of energy, James R. Schlesinger Jr., the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, G. William Miller, and Special Trade Representative Robert Strauss have all made similar arguments for the gas legislation.
These officials acknowledge that the bill is far from perfect (Strauss, for instance, gives it a personal "C plus"), but insist it is the only bill that Congress can possibly consider, probably for years to come, and that its defeat wold convince the world that America lacks "the national will," in Carter's phrase, to deal with the energy issue - at great cost to the beleaguered dollar.
A number of businessmen and bankers who have listened to the argument this week said in a series of interviews that it was not easy to dismiss it. Even executives of firms that have strongly attacked the gas bill - particularly large industrial users of natural gas - said they would "take another look" at their opposition after hearing the dire warnings of international repercussions if the bill is beaten.
Several senior officers of some of the country's wealthiest financial institutions said in interviews that they were thoroughly convinced by the administration's arguments and would try to persuade friends in Congress that defeat of the gas bill could seriously harm the dollar.
Miller, an increasingly unconventional Federal Reserve chairman in his willingness to lobby for the administration, made a forceful presentation to the financial executives at a luncheon meeting Wednesday. He did not speak at yesterday's meetings.
George McKinney, president of Irving Trust Co. and one of those who heard Miller's plea, said he agreed wholeheartedly that defeat of the gas bill would damage the dollar. However McKinney and other bankers interviewed expressed doubt that passing the bill would actually help the dollar - they saw only potential damage not potential benefit. This is because the dollar's weakness tems from many factors not touched by the gas bill, the bankers said.
For businessmen who have a more direct interest in gas than bankers do, the "national interest" argument has to be weighed against immediate and direct concerns.
Maurey Halsey, a vice president of Northern Illinois Gas, who heard President Carter's plea for support yesterday, said it was "very compelling," but added that businessmen "are not in the best position to make that determination" about the national interest.
Halsey said his firm's continuing opposition to the bill is based on its assessment of the economic needs of its gas customers in Illinois.
Whether the business representatives whom the administration has targeted in recent days can sway votes on the gas bill in the Senate remains an open question - assuming that they will try.
An Associated Press survey of Senate offices found yesterday that 32 favor or lean toward the gas bill, 35 oppose or lean against it, and 33 are undecided.
The opponents of the bill include what Schlesinger yesterday called "strange political bedfellows, to say the least," from natural gas producers who want total and early deregulation to consumer groups who want continued regulation and relatively low gas prices.
Many of the opponents are passionate in their beief that this complex compromise bill is worse than nothing. Proponents of the compromise, on the other hand, are the first to admit that they do not have passionate arguments, but rather feel that the country must have some gas bill and this is the only one available.
Carter, Schlesinger and Strauss argued yesterday that the gas bill would induce new domestic production that could be used instead of imported oil. The substitution of expanded demoestic gas for imported oil would save 1.4 million barrels of imported oil a day by 1985, Schlesinger said, for a savings of $6.75 billion in that year at current world prices for oil.
Oppenents of the bill have argued that these projections are much too optimistic. Some gas industry supporters claim they are too pessimistic.
The administration officials also said the proposed Alaska gas pipeline will not be built unless the gas bill is passed, cutting off a potential supply of 800 billion cubic feet of gas a year by the mid-1980s.
The administration position now is that the United States should increase its consumption of domestically produced natural gas substantially in the next decade as a means of minimizing the need for imported oil, which can be supplanted by gas in some of its uses.
The President also appeared to have had at least partial success in enlisting the help of the governors behind the gas compromise. Most of the governors said they were behind the bill, but four of them - David Boren of Oklahoma, Dolph Briscoe of Texas, Richard D. Lamm of Colorado and Martin Schreiber of Wisconsin - questioned Schlesinger closely, and stopped short of outright endorsements, according to a participant in the meeting.
The source said the "overall tone of the meeting was supportive."
After the meeting, White House officials brought Govs. Julian Carroll of Kentucky and William Milliken of Michigan before reporters to make an appeal for the legislation. Carroll has just succeeded Milliken as chairman of the National Governors' Association.
Carroll said it would be "catastrophic to our nation if this energy bill at this time does not pass." Rejecting suggestions that Congress recommit the gas measure to committee and try to produce a simplified version, he said, "We understand the alternatives, and the alternatives appear to be the energy legislation passed by the conference committee or no bill at all."
Milliken said, "To recommit is simply to kill the bill . . . The bill represents a realistic compromise, and the only hope we have to adopt a national emergy policy now."
Carroll said he and some of the other governors were trying to arrange a breadfast meeting with the congressional leadership to discuss the gas legislation. Earlier yesterday, Carroll and lobbyists from the governors' association met with aides to Senate and House leaders to assure them the governors "do not intend to interfere with the process on the gas bill, but want to help the leadership.
At yesterday's meeting for businessmen - primarily representatives of industrial concerns that use natural gas - Strauss said the administration felt many people were misinformed about the complex gas bill, and he added that "there is really no opportunity to get the American people to listen and to explain it to them." That's why the administration has arranged these meetings of interested parties, Strauss said.