Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) yesterday joined the critics of the Carter administration's handling of energy matters, saying it is "past time for the administration to get its act together and finally come to grips with this problem."
Byrd gave grudging approval to Carter's decision to hold a daylong planning session at Camp David tomorrow on energy and inflation issues, but he indicated that such a conference should have taken place long ago.
At his weekly coffee-and-conversation meeting with reporters, the Senate Democratic leader also took a shot at the administration for threatening to deregulate the trucking industry if the truckers' current contract negotiations end in a settlement exceeding President Carter's anti-inflation guidelines.
"I don't think they're in a position... to use [deregulation] as a bargaining chip," Byrd said. "I doubt they can be sure Congress will approve deregulation to the point they can use it as a chip."
Byrd's fairly harsh criticism of Carter's energy management reflects the depth of congressional dissatisfaction in both parties with the president and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger. Generally, Byrd has defended Carter against attacks from other senators; yesterday, he seemed eager to join the fray.
Although the majority leader stopped short of demanding Schlesinger's resignation, as some senators did last week, Byrd said the Department of Energy under Schlesinger has been marked by "shifts in policy. shifts in direction, confused statistics, etc., etc., that are causing great troubles.
"The administration should have had its standby oil supply proposals up before Congress two years ago," Byrd said. "There is still no comprehensive energy policy in place that I know about.... We're just sort of on a treadmill."
Byrd's unhappiness with Schlesinger stems partly from the interest of Byrd's home state of West Virginia, a major coal producer. "Trhe emphasis has shifted, apparently, from coal to natural gas," Byrd said. "The word 'coal' wasn't even mentioned in the State of the Union address this year."
In his discussion of the prospects for trucking industry deregulation. Byrd conceded that the major obstacle to such legislation is a squabble between two committee chairmen -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Se. Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.) -- over which chairman has jurisdication over the bill.
Byrd said the two are "negotiating," but neither has agreed yet to let the other have the bill.
Byrd said he expects the Senate next week to pass legislation increasing the government's debt ceiling but said it is likely some senators will try to add an amendment calling for a balanced federal budget. Such an amendment fell two votes short of passage when the House approved the debt increase last week.
The senator questioned the sincerity of some advocates of a balanced federal budget.
"We get these letters," he said, "telling us, 'Balance the budget! Balance the budget!' The same letter will often say, 'When am I going to get my check?'"