The Senate yesterday rejected, 36 to 55, a second attempt to scuttle the natural gas pricing compromise, clearing the way for a final vote on the bill today.
Backers of the House Senate conference agreement to end price controls on new gas by 1985 expect about 55 of the 100 senators to vote for it, giving President Carter's energy plan its biggest push forward in months.
If it passes the Senate the bill still faces a House fight, but momentum appears to be with the president. The legislation appeared dead several times this year but had been gaining strength steadily since Carter began lobbying hard after Labor Day.
Opposition has come from pro-producer senators, who complain it does not deregulate fast enough, and from pro-consumer senators who oppose any deregulation as costing consumers extra billions without producing any more gas.
Yesterday this coalition tried again to send the bill back to conference with instructions that Senate conference insist on striking out the pricing provision, which are the heart of the legislation. Last week the Senate rejected, 59 to 39, a similar motion which would have left in the bill only an extension of an emergency gas pricing law and a special price for Alaskan gas to make feasible private financing of a pipeline to carry it across Canada to the Midwest.
Opponents tried to pick up farm state votes yesterday by adding to their recommittal motion another conference agreement which provides that, during a shortage farmers and food processors shall be the last to have their natural gas curtailed.
There were no switches from last week's vote. The differences were due to absentees. The only Maryland or Virginia senator voting against the recommittal motion was Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.).
Mangers argued that sending the bill back to conference would kill it because House conferees have served notice they won't meet again for more negotiations, the agreement was worked out after seven months of bargaining.
The bill is not what Carter originally wanted. He proposed continuing price controls at higher levels and extending interstate regulation to include intrastate gas consumed where produced. The House approved that, but the Senate went the other way, voting deregulation in 1985. The compromise now appears to be the only major Carter energy proposal with a chance of enactment this year.
The conference agreement would permit annual increase in new gas prices of about 10 percent a year for seven years, when the lid would go off. Either the president or Congress could reimpose controls for one 18-month period if prices went too high after 1985.
With the gas fight nearly over in the Senate the House-Senate energy conferees will meet again tomorrow to try to settle one final difference in an omnibus conservation bill. The Senate added a ban on sale of gas-guzzling cars which House conferees have repeatedly and unamimously refused to accept.
Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), author of the provision, had agreed to give in if that might free three energy-saving bills and leave the natural gas and energy tax bill behind to die.
But now that the gas bill has been revied. Metzenbaum said he will fight for his ban. However, he might accept a compromise that would double existing penalties for auto manufacturers that don't meet fleetwide gasoline efficiency standards.
The House is not expected to vote on the gas bill for two weeks. It plans to wait for the Senate to vote on two lesser and relatively noncontroversial energy bills, then bundle those with natural gas and a coal conversion bill, into one package and try to send the whole bundle to Carter with one vote.