Reporters were puzzled Tuesday afternoon when Senate Democratic leaders stalled for two hours before agreeing to vote on a motion to scuttle the natural gas compromise. A week earlier they easily had beaten a similar motion to send the bill back to a House-Senate conference, 59 to 39. A little earlier Tuesday a roll call had showed eight absentees, five of them opponents. And when the vote finally was taken, supporters of the bill easily won again, 55 to 36. So why the hesitation?
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), manager of the gas bill, explained: "There's a game they play around here." When an important vote is coming up, the side that's behind may pick an unimportant roll call earlier in the day and have a number of their members not show up, hoping to lull the other side. "They just lay out there in the weed," jackson said, and when they key vote is held, they dash out on the floor hoping to win by surprise.
Senate Democrats couldn't afford a single slip on the gas bill which is the most important remaining part of President Carter's energy package.If recommitted to conference, it probably would have died.Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) spent an hour or more trying to find out if the opposition absenteeism was apparent or real. He finally decided he could take a chance.
There was an angry shouting scene Wednesday in the House Rules Committee. House Democratic leaders were trying to arrange a fancy deal to take the Senate-passed countercyclical aid bill direct to the House floor instead of sending it to the Government Operations Committee headed by Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), who opposes it.
Brooks was angry at the House Democratic leadership for trying to do an end run around him.Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), who was trying to put the end-run rule together, was angry at the Senate for changing the bill after passing it, leaving him in the embarrassing position of not knowing what the change was. James Delaney (D-N.Y.), Rules Committee chairman, was angry because he said no one told him the bill was to be on the agenda that day.
Delaney fired his counsel, Phillip Collins, whom he had persuaded to leave his law practice and join his staff when Delaney became chairman last year. Bolling ended the committee meeting by noting there was not a quorum present. Delaney later made his peace with Collins and called him back to work, but the countercyclical hasn't got its rule yet.
House leaders yesterday removed from the schedule the bill creating a department of education, planning instead of regroup in the face of conservative efforts to load the bill with amendments forbidding use of federal funds for sex education, counseling pregnant teenagers and other such school work.
Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger arrived in the Senate visitors' gallery Wednesday to watch the vote on the natural gas bill, on which he had worked for a year. He promptly began puffing his ever-present pipe, but an attendant scurried down the steps to tell him smoking was against the rules in the Senate chamber.
Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.) has a recollection that shows how important the adminstration and congressional leaders considered the gas bill.
On Aug. 17, before the final House and Senate signatures were obtained on the gas conference report at a White House meeting, Wilson left for Texas in the afternoon. He left behind his signatures on a blank piece of paper. At the time only 10 of the necessary 13 House signatures had been obtained. Wilson says he authorized his signature to be pasted on the conference report if Rep. Joe Waggonner (D-La.) also agreed to sign. Wilson said he didn't want to be the only member from a producer state signing.
After Wilson left town, Waggonner announced he was opposed to the conferene agreement and would not sign. Wilson said two other liberal opponents of the bill, Reps. James Corman (D-Calif.) and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), were induced to sign and make the necessary 13 with the assurance that Wilson had signed. Then a phone call was made from the White House to Wilson in Texas and by midnight he agreed to have his name placed on the report.
Next week at the Capitol:
The House schedule includes everything it expects to take up for the rest of the session, which it hopes to end Oct. 14, including extension of the Endangered Species Act.
The Senate will vote on extension of time for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and take up as many of the remaining necessary authorization bills and conference reports as it can.