In a dramatic 207-to-206 vote, the House wrapped five energy bills into a simple package yesterday in a step that almost certainly assures passage of President Carter's top priority bill today.
As has been true throughout the energy bill's 13-month passage through Congress, the question bitterly dividing members yesterday was the multi-billion-dollar one of the price of natural gas and after an agonizing test the gas pricing compromise took one more safe step forward.
The motion was on limiting the final energy vote today to a simple vote one one package. Its defeat would have permitted a separate vote on natural gas which opponents believed was their best chance to defeat the biggest remaining part of the energy bill. The White House and Democratic House leaders had been working for weeks to round up a majority for a single vote rule.
When the 15-minute roll call ended the running totals on the electronic wall board stood a 200 to 200. Over the next five minutes, as everyone in the chamber stood and watched, nine members voted or changed their voters. Rep. Millicent Ferwick (R-K.J.) switched from yes to present and it was tied again at 206 to 206. First termer Thomas R. Evans (R-Del.) then voted yes to make it 207 to 206 and Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill crashed down his gravel to declare the motion had carried.
Leading sponsors of the bill said that vote should nail down final approval of the bill today. "People wouldn't vote for the rule and taken against the bill," said Thomas Ashley of Ohio, the Democratic leadership's point man in the fight for a strong bill.
The Senate has already given its final blessing to four of the five parts of the energy plan, and hopes to approve the fifth today.
The compromise to end gas price controls in 1985 isn't what Carter wanted, but he has embraced it as the centerpiece of the watered-down remmants of his proposals to save energy and reduce reliance on foreign oil. The house voted with Carter for continued regulation, but the Senate voted to deregulate gas. It took eight months for House-senate conferes to reach a compromise, and only a bare majority of the conferees from each body signed it.
In the House Rules Committee Thursday a Democratic leadership attempt to wrap into the package the provisions which the Seante had considered as five separate bills was rejected 8 to 8. Sponsors decided the best way to pass the gas bill was to package it with goodies such as tax credits and federal aid programs. If put to a separate vote, they weren't sure it could survive.
The Rules Committee was reconvened yesterday morning and B. F. Sisk (D-Calif.) switched to give the vote needed to send the single-package rule to the floor. Sisk was put on the Rules Committee in 1961 after the leadership won a titanic battle to wrest control over the legilsative-scheduling unit from conservatives, but ironically he has been one of the least reliable members from the leadership's standpoint.
Sisk who is retiring this year, had a phone call from the president 'Thursday and was called into a meeting with O'Neill that evening. Sisk said he had become persuaded that it is imperative to pass an energy bill to bolster the value of the dollar abroad. "I will not be a party to killing the energy bill," he told colleagues on the Rules Committee just before they voted.
The rule to package the energy bills together was then approved 9 to 5 when two other Democrats - Shirley Chisholm (N.Y.) and Gillis Long (La.) - who had voted against it Thursday voted present.
When the single-package rule was put to a vote by the full House, the party breakdown on the 207-to-206 vote showed 199 Democrats and a 8 Republicans voting to bar amendments to the rule and 79 Democrats and 127 Republicans voting to open it up to an amendment permitting a separate vote on natural gas. All Maryland and Virginia members voted against the leadership's single-package plan except Democrats Clarence Long (Md.), Dan Daniel (Va.) and Joseph Fisher (Va.).
Opponents were a strange coalition of conservatives and liberals who wanted either instant deregulation or none ever. Their basis argument was that House members, as representatives of the people, were entitled to cast a separate vote on gas and not be forced to swallow or kill the entire-package.
John Anderson (R-Ill.), leading the fight for a separate natural gas vote, read from a list of organizations opposed to the gas compromise that ranged from the AFL-CIO to the U.S. Chamber of COmmerce.
Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) replied that the stake was "the national interest, not the sum of the special interests. They do not add up to the national interest."
Phillip Burton (D-Calif.), fighting the party leadership that he tried to join last year, called deregulation an "outrage" that would raise heating costs of poor working people. "You'll rue the day if you don't give us a chance to bust this rule," he predicted.
Supporters of the natural gas compromise argue that it will provide price certainty and an adequate supply of gas in northern consuming states. Opponents contend that the compromise, which for the first time would extend price controls over intrastate gas during the next seven years, will only increase price without producing more gas.
Other bills that now become part of the House package would encourage home insulation, push industries from use of oil or gas to abundant coal, encourage utilities to save energy by offering cheaper off-peak rates, and give away about $1 billion next year in tax credits for saving energy.
The House-Senate conference agreement on the tax bill, which contains credits but no major tax increases, has been delayed in the Senate by the opponent of the gas bill. A cloture motion to limit debate will be voted on today, but even if it is approved Abourezk and his allies could talk on for several hours.
If the energy tax bill, with its tax credits for home insulation, dies, Congress has a backup Senate-passed insulation bill which the House could pass and send directly to Carter.