IN THE END, the Senate passed the gas bill by a surprisingly strong majority. By the time of the final vote yesterday, the original quarrels over the pricing of natural gas had been long overshadowed by a larger question: Was the Senate going to make up its mind at all? For some months there had been rising uneasiness throughout the country over the propect that the national governmental couldn't or wouldn't arrive at a decision of any sort. That uneasiness had reverberated overseas, where it aggravated the country's other economic troubles - notably the decline of the dollar.
The final gas bill was a tortured compromise, long and complex. But for the Senate it wasn't a choice between this bill and some ideal alternative. It was a choice between passing this bill or abandoning the energy legislation altogether. To its credit, the Senate voted, 57 to 42, to finish the job.
It was the Senate's bipartisan center that rescued the issue from the zealots and idealogues on both sides. The 42 votes against the bill include the most vehement leaders of both the campaign to control gas prices forever and the equal and opposite campaign to decontrol them immediately. Sen Lloyd M. Bentsen (D-Tex.), the apostle of decontrol voted against the bill because it doesn't go nearly far enough. Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.), who thinks that the controls ought to be much broader, voted against the bill because it goes much too far. Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) was against it because it doesn't do enough for producers. Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) was against it because it doesn't do enough for consumers. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) voted against it. So did Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). It was a victory for the senators in the middle. It was also a victory, we might add, for the national interest.
If the bill is enacted, it will offer several important benefits. More gas will reach the northern and eastern states. Because the bill abolishes the distinction between instrastate and interstate sales, the whole nation will become one unified market. It is debatable how much more gas will come to the market. But there will be some, and any increase will immediately mean lower imports of oil. As for the bill's complexity, about which it opponents have complained endlessly, its procedures are less complex and a great deal less uncertain than the alternative, which would leave everything to a regulatory process in which every decision gets litigated for months and years. The price of gas is certainly going to rise over the next decade, and a lot of consumers are going to be angry about it. But it ought to be pretty clear by now that legislation and regulation can't keep prices down without costly and disruptive shortages.
For most of Congress, the energy-pricing decisions have become extremely painful and difficult. There was a danger that Congress would respond by failing to make any decisions at all - a failure that would have had the most ominous consequences for the whole country. But things are looking up. The Senate has met its responsibility.Now it's up to the House.