The Carter administration and sugar-industry representatives began a series of talks yesterday aimed at developing a "consensus" price-support bill that could mean hefty cost increases for consumers.
Another costly and controversial bill, heavily laden with unrelated but equally controversial amendments, was defeated in the dying hours of the 95th Congress in October.
A Department of Agriculture spokesman said yesterday that the talks with industry, labor and consumer groups are intended to produce a bill that can be sent to the new Congress early next year.
"Our hope is that Congress will have more time to cinsier it in a more leisurely and pleasant way than occurred last time," the department official said.
But the administration's moves on the sugar front are almost certain to set off a new round of acrimonious debate on Capitol Hill-no matter what is proposed.
Rep. David A. Stockman (R-Mich.), one of the critics of price-support legislation, said yesterday that he again intends to battle any administration proposal that would lead to higher sugar prices for consumers.
"I am opposed to any new program. The Department of Agriculture has ample authority right now to do all that needs to be done. A new program just ups the ante for the producers," Stockman said.
"The present support price of 14 cents a pound is adequate," he added. "If they push the price above 16 cents and put in an escalator clause it will cause the same fight."
But USDA's John Simpson, an aide in the office of chief economist Howard W. Hjort, said he doubted that the administration would accept a support price above 151/2 cents per pound.
He said a "consensus" bill most likely would be based on the legislation that lost at the 11th-hour in the House, with a system of fees and duties rather than quotas for imports, and a specified support level with a mechanism for escalating payments to producers.
Supporters of the protective legislation contend that, while it would increase consumer prices, it also would provide stability against the rollercoaster price swings that are traditional in the sugar trade.
"This is a real steep price to pay," Stockman said. "It doesn't stop the price from rising, because they put on upper cap on it. It is a transparent figleaf-the producers are trying to form a cartel, and they would scream bloody murder if an upper cap was provided."
Domestic producers-cane growers,sugar beet grower, corn refiners-argue that they must have a higher support price to cover production costs and to protect them from market fluetuations caused by imports of lower-cost foreign sugar.
But even among the domestic producers and the major industrial users of sugar, soft-drink and bakery companies, there has been major disagreement over the levels of support and type of payment they would receive from the government.
"Rather than having a potpourri fo bills, we would like to try for a consensus," Simpson said. "We would try to minimize the controversy."