In a sharp rebuff to President Carter, House Democrats expressed overwhelming opposition yesterday to the administration's plan to end controls on oil prices beginning June 1.
The vote, which came on a procedural move, was the clearest sign to date that members of Congress have begun to respond to growing public anger about long lines at gasoline stations, higher gasoline prices and oil company profits.
It also showed the continuing split between the White House and congressional Democrats about the administration's energy policies.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said the vote yesterday was "a complete and total repudiation of the president by his own party."
Final action on the resolution, which declares that it is the policy of house Democrats to extend oil price controls, may come today. A group of Democrats is seeking to substitute a resolution that supports Carter's decontrol plan but declares that decontrol should not begin until "an adequate" windfall profits tax has been enacted.
The vote yesterday came on a motion to table the resolution calling for an extension of controls. The caucus vote rejecting the motion was 153 to 82, and supporters of continued controls believe the resolution will be approved by a similar margin.
The resolution is simply an expression of sentiment by the caucus, but its author, Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), said he would try to attach an amendment extending controls to a Department of Energy authorization bill that soon will go to the House floor for debate.
House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D-Mass.), who voted for the Moffett resolution in the caucus, said a floor vote on continuing controls would be "very close." He also predicted the Senate would not vote to extend controls. Carter's decontrol plan will take effect unless both houses vote to block it.
Shortly after the vote, the White House issued a statement saying that "any thoughts that such votes will change the president's policy are completely misdirected.
"The president continues to seek a phased end to controls coupled with a windfall profits tax to finance an energy security fund to help develop alternative energy forms," the statement said. "The time for ducking the tough issues is past."
Markey, a cosponsor of the Moffett resolution, said yesterday's vote showed the president is "completely at odds with what his party stands for."
The president's move to decontrol oil prices "was a slap in the face at the Democratic Party and its platform," Moffett said. "We're not part of a group that wants to make the president look bad. We'd like nothing better than for him to rise from the political dead and come back to a party position."
Moffett said that whether decontrol passed the House "would depend on what the American people say," but he added that yesterday's vote showed the public that "reinforcement is under way in the battle against higher energy prices."*tIn a spirited debate in the caucus, Moffett and his supporters declared decontrol would hurt consumers and would increase oil company profits without significantly increasing production.
"Even if the windfall profits tax were a strong one, it is more of a political protection device," Moffett said, adding it would give a "pittance to the poor but not help the working class."
But Rep. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) said Congress' "inability to face high energy prices is in fact the real political protection device."
Wirth argued that only 15 percent of domestic oil is still under control, and decontrol would reverse a decline in production of domestic oil and natural gas. He said decontrol would increase production by 200,000 to 300,000 barrels of oil a day in the next year and 500,000 barrels a day by 1981.
Majority leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who voted the table Moffett's resolution, said the resolution would "deeply embarrass the president and depply embarrass the Deomcratic Party."
Controls, Wright said, have only made the American consumer more dependent on foreign oil, as operators of marginal wells have stopped production because it is not worth pumping oil for the controlled price.
Wirth argued that in a trillion-dollar economy the $12 billion to $20 billion increase in oil prices because of decontrol would add only 6 percentage point to the inflation rate by 1981.
However, Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) said it ould coust consumers " $50 billion between now and 1985 and add 1.5 percent to the inflation rate for benefits that are almost illusionary."
Rep. John Seiberling (D-Ohio) said the oil companies' cash flow was "embarrassing to them" and added oil companies would only use more profits to invest in other businesses, as Mobil Oil did in purchasing Montgomery Ward.
But Rep. Phil Gramm (D-Tex.) called it "demagoguery" to say that oil company profits are "massive, obscene and pornographic." He said the rate of return on profits for oil companies was 13.7 percent, far below that of other manufacturers.