A joint House-Senate conference committee yesterday moved close to a compromise on President Carter's proposed crude-oil tax bill, but remained visibly divided on the key issue of how to treat independent oil drillers under the plan.
The lawmakers appeared agreed that the independents should have to pay about $25 billion of the $227 billion in new revenues the bill would raise over the next 10 years -- about half the $50 billion tax exemption they would get in the Senate bill.
However, the two sides remained far apart on how small an independent should have to be to qualify for a lower tax rate. The Senate wants special treatment for those producing 1,000 barrels a day or less. The House would set this at 200 barrels.
The panel is racing to complete action on the tax portion of the bill by Wednesday in time to avoid sharp criticism from the president when he delivers his State of the Union speech that night. The address is to be nationally televised.
As an indication of White House interest in the bill, press secretary Jody Powell said yesterday that the president was glad to see the conferees back to work, and said approval of the measure is needed to deal with the Iranian crisis.
Besides the tax portion of the bill, the legislation also contains $14 billion in tax credits to encourage the use of alternative energy sources and additional proposals to help finance heating bills for the poor.
The panel's strategy as of yesterday appeared to be to halve the exemption the Senate granted the independents while at the same time raising the tax rate that chamber voted to impose on newly discovered oil -- a setback for the majors.
There was no immediate agreement, but the conferees appeared to be negotiating for a tax rate of 25 to 30 percent on newly discovered oil -- compared with a 10 percent rate in the Senate bill and a 50 percent rate voted by the House.
The two sides also appeared likely to approve a flat 65 to 70 percent tax rate for existing oil, combining now-separate categories for oil discovered before and after 1973.
The House delegation is insisting on a 200-barrel-a-day limit on the tax break for independents on grounds that the Senate's 1,000-barrel restriction would include too many large drillers who do not have the same cash problems.
The issue has divided the oil industry in what may be the fiercest fight in its history. The major oil companies fear that if the independents are granted too large an exemption the larger firms will have to make up the difference in taxes.