Attempts to bring the controversial natural gas conference report to the Senate floor failed yesterday when proponents and opponents of the bill disagreed on parliamentary procedures for the debate.
As a result, Senate action on the measure, which President Carter has called a crucial test of the national will, won't occur before next week at the earliest.
In another development yesterday, Carter narrowly escaped potentially serious embarrassment in the House when pro-administration forces defeated a motion on oil imports by a margin of only seven.
The motion would have put the House on record in support of a Senate-passed amendment canceling the president's power to impose import fees on foreign oil. The Senate passed this amendment, offered by Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), last summer, on the eve of the western powers' economic summit, when Carter was suggesting he might impose such fees if Congress failed to enact other parts of his energy plan.
Administration officials were reportedly thrown into turmoil Wednesday night when they learned that the House would consider the Dole amendment yesterday. Frantic last-minute lobbying helped produce the administration's 201-to-194 victory.
The defeated motion, offered by Rep. Clarence J. Brown (R-Ohio), would have instructed House conferees on the Treasury Department appropriations bill to accept the Dole amendment when they met with Senate conferees.
The administration has denied that it has any imminent plan to put a new import duty on oil, but this weapon has always been described as a potential response if Congress fails to take other action to control oil consumption. A tax on domestically produced oil was originally the key element in Carter's energy plan to achieve reduced consumption, but that tax is regarded as a dead letter on Capitol Hill.
Carter sent written instructions to key members of his administration last summer that blocking the Dole amendment had to be a top legislative priority. But, according to one official, that memo was quickly forgotten, and little lobbying on the issue had been done in the House before yesterday.
Friends of the administration in the House said it would be a blow to Carter's prestige and to the dollar to support the Brown motion.
The procedural stalemate blocking consideration of the gas bill in the Senate could continue for some time.
Opponents of the gas bill, which would raise prices on gas substantially before decontrolling them entirely in 1985, have refused to agree to a proposal from Senate leaders to set a fixed time for a vote on the measure with a promise not to move to table or kill the bill before that time.
The opponents led by Sens. James Abourezk (D-S.D.), and Russell B. Long (D-La.) on the Democratic side and Dewey F. Bartlett (R-Okla.), and Clifford P. Hansen (R-Wyo.) on the Republican side, argued that any agreement on a fixed hour for a final vote would only ensure that most senators would leave Washington in the interim, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn't be missing any important votes.
A full, well-attended floor debate "is the only thing we have," Abourezk said yesterday.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), said he wanted to protect senators who are out of town from the embarrassment of missing what could be a key vote on the gas bill, which he called one of the most important pieces of legislation before the Senate this year.
Long, a principal strategist for the opponents, said earlier that he did not want to "spot any points" to proponents of the bill by agreeing to any limitations on the normal room for parliamentary maneuver.
The opponents said repeatedly yesterday that they have no plan to seek to table the gas bill, but rather hope to win majority support for a motion to recommit it to the conference committee with instructions to report much simpler legislation that does not include changes in the price structure for gas.
Several opponents said that supporters of the bill did not want to bring it up yesterday because they lack votes to carry the measure.
Waving tally sheets of the Senate for dramatic effect, Byrd denied this heatedly, saying he had the votes but just wanted to protect senators who happen to be out of town on (many of them campaigning in an election year). Byrd said 29 senators were away from Washington yesterday.
In other developments yesterday, Sens. Floyd K. Haskell (D-Colo.) and Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) released a letter to President Carter challenging his apparent change of policy regarding the development of nuclear breeder reactors, which both these senators oppose. Aides indicated this letter to President Carter challenging senators' voting against the gas bill, which both of them earlier supported.
The League of Women Voters yesterday announced its endorsement of the natural gas bill, making it the first major consumer-oriented organization to do so.