The Senate refused yesterday to double the bite of its proposed tax on windfall profits from decontrol of oil prices.
It also indicated in a separate vote it may yield to independent oil producers today and exempt their first 1,000 barrels a day of production from the proposed tax.
At the same time, it voted again to require the president to get congressional approval before imposing oil import quotas or fees, a move that was blocked earlier in the House on procedural grounds.
The vote against stiffening the tax package came on a 32-to-50 vote against scuttling the windfall profits handiwork of its Finance Committee in favor of a considerably stronger bill approved by the House.
While a rebuff to President Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), both of whom favor the House bill and criticize the Senate committee version as inadequate, the Senate vote yesterday does not rule out other moves to strengthen the committee proposal.
But coupled with earlier votes against a substantial weakening of the measure, the result appeared to strengthen the hand of Finance Committee chairman Russell B. Long (D-La.) in fending off any radical surgery to what his committee put together.
On two earlier test votes, the oil industry was able to muster 32 votes in favor of a weaker tax, precisely what the advocates of a stronger tax got yesterday.
This divides the Senate almost evenly into three camps: those who want to strengthen the tax, those who want to weaken it and those who apparently not want to do either. Altogether, it amounts to a happy hunting ground for Long, who is touting his committee's proposal as a well-balanced compromise.
Nearly 100 amendments remain before the Senate as it struggles to complete action on the measure and get it through a House-Senate conference before the scheduled congressional adjournment in mid-December.
In what amounted to a test vote on one of these amendments, the Senate voted 32 to 52 last night against tabling the 1,000-barrel exemption for independent producers, which would siphon nearly$10 billion over the next decade from the anticipated windfall tax revenues.The exemption is opposed by the administration but vigorously advocated by the independent producers as an incentive to exploration -- a claim that industry critics reject as spurious. A vote on the exemption is scheduled today.
Although the Middle East turmoil was invoked by both sides in their arguments yesterday, it was not clear whether it changed any votes.
Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), chief sponsor of the move to adopt the House bill, argued that oil companies were benefiting from Middle Eastern instability while investing only insignificantly in oil exploration in this country. With $1 trillion in additional oil company revenues expected over the next decade from the administration's decontrol oil prices, a tax of $138 billion is "peanuts [compared to] what the American people are being asked to cough up" in the way of higher prices, said Bumpers.
Characterizing the oil industry as an "underdog" because of public resistance to higher prices, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said excessive taxation would simply drive the industry to drill more abroad, thereby increasing the country's dependence on foreign-produced oil.
Dole and other oil state senators indicated irritation at Saudi Arabia's warning last weekend to Treasury Secretary G. William Miller that it might raise oil prices if the United States does not curb oil company profits.
But Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said he had only sympathy for the Saudis' contention that the oil companies were taking undue advantage of their price restraint policy. "I can only say to the Saudis," said Metzenbaum, "join the crowd."
Although Bumpers characterized his proposal as the "ball game" for efforts to strengthen the tax, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and others said the vote did not mean that other tax-strengthening moves would fail. The committee proposal "perhaps should be tightened up" to bring in more revenues, said Byrd, but not by scrapping it entirely in favor of the House bill.
Among Washington area senators, Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) and Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) voted to strengthen the committee proposal, while John W. Warner (R-Va.) voted against it. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. (Ind-Va.) did not vote.