President Carter's energy bill was pushed to the congressional goal line yesterday but was stalled there by a Senate mini-filibuster against energy tax credits.
Nothing has been easy about the energy bill. It had taken 18 months and major parts had to be jettisoned along the way and others rescued by one-vote margins.
The House on Friday by a vote of 207 to 206 had made passage of the natural gas compromise and other non-tax parts of the omnibus bill a virtual certainly, by agreeing to vote on them as a package rather than expose the controversial natural gas bill to the hazards of a separate vote. But the House delayed a final vote, waiting for the Senate to act on the energy tax bill so that could be included in the package.
The energy tax bill, which includes only one mild tax on the sale of gas guzzling cars and $1 billion a year in tax credits, ran into opposition from a handful of senators opposed to the tax credits. The Senate voted 71 to 13 yesterday morning to invoke cloture, limiting debate. That meant each senator could speak no more than one hour on the bill. But they could add to the time consumed by forcing 15-minute roll call votes on procedural matters.
Majority leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) vowed to keep the Senate here until it passed the energy bill, even though it contains virtually none of the taxes Carter wanted to save oil and reduce reliance on imports. Byrd stayed on the floor much of the time trying to invoke the Senate rule forbidding dilatory tactics once cloture has been invoked.
The Senate talkathon was led by James Abourezk (D-S.D.) and William Proxmire (D-Wis.). They were protesting $300 million a year in tax credits to businesses that buy energy-saving equipment, a special tax break on expensive geopressurized methane gas, and tax credits of up to $300 to home-owners who insulate and thereby reduce heating bills and increase property value.
When Proxmire tried to use up some time by asking for a quorum call. Byrd leaped up and said he couldn't get a quorum cell because no business had been [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the last one. Proxmire [LINE ILLEGIBLE] asked "unaminous consent that the Republican Party be abolished." But the chair ruled that didn't constitute business.
In any other year the final version of the energy bill would have been considered a major achievement. But since Carter asked for so much Congress wasn't ready to accept, the emphasis has been on what was killed.
Carter hoped to save 4.5 million barrels of oil a day by 1985 through a series of taxes, incentives and regulatory authority to reduce reliance on oil imports which now constitute about 40 percent of American consumption.
But two-thirds of the saving was to come from two big taxes on the price of oil. They were killed. Congress also rejected his standby tax on gasoline that could have risen to 50 cents a gallon, refused to order electric utilities to change rate structures to save energy, and voted phased deregulation of natural gas instead of Carter's request to continue price controls at higher levels. Sponsors of the bill estimated it would save about half of Carter's goal.
Major provisions of the final bill:
Natural gas. A compromise worked out after nearly a year of negotiations between House and Senate would end price controls on new gas in 1985, but controls could be reimposed for one 18-month period if the president or Congress decided prices had risen too far. The ceiling on the wellhead price of gas, which is about one-third the home-delivered price, is now $1.50 per thousand cubic feet (mcf). It would rise to about $2 immediately and then annually by the rate of inflation plus about 4 percent. Large industrial users would absorb price increases until they reach a specified level when residential consumers would share higher prices.
Supporters say the natural gas compromise will save the equivalent of one million barrels of oil a day by producing more gas. Opponents contend it will produce no more gas and say higher gas prices will actually lead to increased oil consumption. Price controls on natural gas have been a subject of national debate for a quarter century.
The bill forbids installation of any more decorative outdoor gas lights and will shut off existing ones in three years.
Coal conversion. The bill requires that as a general proposition new utility and industrial plants be built to use some fuel other than oil or gas, and that existing utilities convert from gas to some other fuel by 1990, and it empowers the government to order conversion of big existing industrial plants on a case-by-case basis. The purpose is to push industry to use abundant coal. But the bill also contains a long list of exemptions. Conversion could not be ordered, for instance, in areas that lack a reliable supply of coal or where coal smoke would violate environmental laws or court orders.
Utility rates. The bill directs state regulatory agencies to consider energy-saving procedures, such as ordering utiltites to offer lower rates for off-peak energy consumption when setting rate structures. It also authorizes the government to order interconnection of electric power systems to avert shortages.
General conservation. The bill authorizes $900 million over three years to insulate schools and hospitals and up to $800 million in grants to help poor families insulate their homes, orders the setting of energy efficiency standards for major home applicances and doubles existing penalties on automakers whose fleet averages violate mileage standards.
Taxes. The only tax left in the bill is a mild levy on the sale of gas-guzzling cars. It would start with 1980 models next year when a car getting less than 15 miles per gallon would be taxed $200. The tax would increase each year until 1986 when it would become permanent and the highest tax on a car getting less than 12.5 mpg would be $3,820. Opponents believe they watered down the tax to the point where almost no cars would be subject to it.
The bill also contains tax credits for home insulation of 15 per cent of the first $2,000 invested or a maximum of $300, and a tax credit up to $2,200 for installing solar heat.