President Carter threatened yesterday to seek punitive action against the oil industry if Congress does not pass an acceptable "windfall profits" tax, but then declined to say specifically what steps he might take.
The president's warning, apparently intended to fend off industry lobbying for further dilution of the tax, was issued at a breakfast meeting with members of a citizens' group set up to promote the legislation.
White House deputy press secretary Rex Granum later told reporters on a presidential trip to New Jersey that Carter had received "a series of steps and options" from his advisers for use if the tax falls short, but had not made any decisions.
The warning came as the Senate Finance Committee completed action on a version of the windfall bill that would collect only half as much as Carter had proposed or the House voted last July.
Also on Capital Hill yesterday, the House hastily approved, 290 to 105, a bill to provide $1.35 billion in energy aid to the poor this winter. That is another Carter proposal. A similar bill has cleared the Senate.
Almost as Carter was speaking, Phillips Petroleum Co. was reporting that its profits last quarter were $62.4 percent above the year before. It thus joined the big oil firms whose earnings bulged last quarter. Shell Oil Co. also chimed in yesterday, announcing profits up 18 percent, while Union Oil reported a 14.4 percent improvement.
Charles DiBona, president of the American Petroleum Institute , defended the profit figures yesterday as a justified recovery from "a very depressed level" the year before. He said the increases stemmed mainly from overseas operations.
However, Robert Russell, director of the White House Council on Wage and Price Stability, said his agency's investigation shows that approximately half the 30-cent increase in gasoline prices this year is from wider margins by refiners.
There was no immediate indication what steps, if any, Carter might take if the windfall profits tax bill does not prove acceptable to him. The president spoke only of "additional proposals . . . which could be quite punitive to the industry."
Some sources familiar with the industry suggested that the president might reverse his decision to lift price controls on oil or retain controls on key products, such as gasoline. However, White House officials declined comment.
Carter used a similar tactic in 1977 to try to force congressional action on natural gas bill. Although the Finance Committee's windfall tax bill is far less than Carter sought, it is expected to be stiffened in conference committee.
The bill is intended to recapture some of the revenue the companies will gain from removal of price controls over the next two years.
As part of its actions yesterday, the Finance Committee voted to earmark some $16 billion of the increased income taxes the oil companies are expected to pay because of decontrol for a possible reduction of Social Security taxes in 1981.
Although the panel did not vote to roll back scheduled Social Security tax increases, its move would provide money to bolster the Social Security trust fund if Congress decides on such a step next year.
The committee also voted to sweeten the windfall tax bill by increasing to $3 billion a year the cash grants it approved earlier to help the poor pay their home heating bills in future winters.
It also voted to extend a new $200 maximum home heating oil tax credit to include electric and gas heat. It did this to mollify Sunbelt states, whose senators complained earlier that the previous formula was skewed too much to northern states.
The $1.35 billion in fuel assistance to the poor bill passed the House only after heated debate over how the money was to be distributed.
Up to $1.2 billion potentially could be distributed in direct one-check payments to welfare recipients receiving Supplemental Security Income or Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Opponents complained that this method would fail to screen out those in such warm-weather states as Hawaii or Florida, would simply amount to an increase in welfare payments and would not distinguish between those with subsidized rents in public housing and those in greatest need.
While Republicans complained about the methods, it was Budget Committee Chairman Robert Giaimo (D-Conn.) who passionately argued that the House was creating a new runaway program "I guarantee will run into billions of dollars."
Welfare recipients are not going to freeze, Giaimo argused, insisting that the states would see to that.
But Giaimo said Congress was "putting the burden on the backs" of working people, who also had higher costs to face. "We're pushing inflation up for many working men and women all because we find it so easy to answer a problem by throwing money at it."
Giaimo said he was beginning to believe Congress could not control spending impulses. "I have resisted spending limits, but I am saying to you I will look closely at efforts to put on spending limits. We are not treating working men and women properly. I have had it and I hope the American people have had it," Giaimo shouted.
Rep. Parren J. MITCHELL (D-Md.) said people were freezing and it could not be left to state and local government. Mitchell called it a "moral imperative" for the federal government to respond.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said it was not the "state government which allowed the price of energy to rise. It was the federal government."
Obey said the bill would eventually be funded out of the "windfall profits" tax.
Under the bill, $405 million would be paid in one lump sum to SSI recipients, largely the elderly and the handicapped. With $791 million, states would have a choice of direct payments to AFDC recipients made by the federal government or taking the money in block grant form and setting up their own program.