President Carter's battered energy bill suffered another jolt yesterday when the House Rules Committee refused 8 to 8. to give it a helping hand to final House passage.
With three Democrats joining all five Republicans, the committee refused to approve a resolution that would have bundled four energy bills into a single package, to keep members from isolating and possibly killing the highly controversial provision to remove federal price controls from new natural gas by 1985.
A rule is needed not only to create a package but also to protect the four conference reports from points of order that might kill them. In several cases, House-Senate conferees went far beyond the scope of either body's bill in reconciling differences. That is normally not allowed.
Democratic leaders called another meeting of the rules Committee last night to try to get a rule that would at least protect the bills against points of order. But they will have to agree to a separate vote on natural gas unless they can shift one committee member's vote.
Another snag developed for the energy package yesterday when the watered-down energy tax bill was held up by a filibuster in the Senate. James Abourezk (D-S-D.), who hoped to cause problems for the gas bill which he opposes, tied up the Senate for more than an hour with parliamentary maneuvers.
The conference report on taxes, containing tax credits for home insulation and a mild version of Carter's proposed tax on the sale of gas-guzzling cars, was set aside and a cloture petition to limit debate was filed. But that cannot be brought to a vote until tommorrow, the day Congress hopes to adjourn.
Carter sent his top priority energy plan to reduce oil imports to Congress 18 months ago and the House passed it as a single bill. The Senate, however, broke it into five bills. Now House sponsors want to repackage it, saying the various programs are interrelated and should be put to a single vote, to pass or fail together.
A coalition of liberals who think that gas deregulation would raise prices too far and conservatives who want deregulation right away rather than gradually have teamed up to try to kill the gas compromise. The Senate passed it after heavy lobbying by Carter and the pressure has been kept up on House members.
The Rules Committee first rejected by an 8-to-8 tie a motion by Rep. Gillis Long (D-La), who represents a big gas-producing state, to give the House a separate vote on the natural gas compromise and then permit a single vote on the other pieces of the energy package. Liberal Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N-y.) and Rep. B. F. Sisk (D-Calif.), also from a producing state, voted with Long as did all five Republicans.
But his same coalition then voted against the rule and it died on an 8-to-8 tie. Chisholm first voted for the rule, but then shifted to against, saying she was confused about what the vote was on.
Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass) huddled with his energy specialists and decided to make another try in the Rules Committee to get whatever rule they could.
Democratic whips were ordered to make a fast head count to determine whether the natural gas provision could pass the House if put to a separate vote unprotected by tax credits and various federal aid energy programs.
The House had planned to take a final vote on the energy package today and sent it to Carter. But action may be delayed until tommorrow to wait for the energy tax bill from the Senate. If the energy tax bill doesn't make it, the House has available a fallback Senate-passed bill to provide the home insulation tax credits which it could pass quickly and send to the president.
Carter's energy program was roughly handled by the Senate and large parts were left to die. Both is major tax proposals on domestic crude oil and industrial use of oil and natural gas were rejected.
Rep. Thomas L. Ashley (D-Ohio), who led the fight for Carter's program in the House and in conference, told the Rules Committee the surviving package represents a "coherent foundation" on which to build a national energy program. He estimated it would save between 2 million and 2.5 million barrels of oil a day by 1985. Carter had estimated his original package would save twice that.
Rep. Clarence Brown (R-Ohio), a strong opponent of the gas bill, said it would add no more gas but would add more price and regulation.
"The gas bill is so bad it can't survive alone," Brown said. "They want to make it more attractive by putting it in a package with" more appealing programs. He predicted the House would defeat the gas bill if it were put to a separate vote.