President Carter lost one he badly wanted yesterday as the House rejected, 232 to 131, the final version of a bill to cut red tape and move new energy production projects off to a fast start.
Only the day before, the House had voted overwhelmingly to send to the president a companion bill authorizing spending of $20 billion to promote production of new energy sources as an alternative to importing $90 billion worth of foreign oil annually.
Carter had hoped to celebrate energy independence day by signing both on the Fourth of July. Now he will have to make do with the synfuels bill alone. Yesterday's vote sent the "fast track" bill back to a House-Senate conference, where it may eventually be resurrected but almost certainly not before Congress goes into recess the middle of next week. Carter had asked for these bills nearly a year ago, along with the domestic crude oil tax, which is now law.
The conference report was not much different from the bill the House originally passed last November by a vote of 299 to 107. But there had been a change in interpretation of the important section of waiving state laws, and some language conferees added in hopes of allaying fears on this issue was seized by others to mean the bill would cause more delay than speed.
Members had different reasons for voting against the bill, which was shaped during six months of bargaining in conference. Some feared it would lead to suspension of state water and other environmental laws. Others saw it as just another layer of bureaucracy that could mean further delays instead of speed. Only nine Republicans voted for the bill, causing its manager, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), to suggest that they were trying to embarrass the president.
Dingell said it would be "very difficult" to revive the bill, but indicated that he was willing to listen. One leading opponent, Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), said he could support a bill only if it flatly forbids waiving of state laws. Dingell indicated that he could never support that.
The bill would have created a three-member board empowered to designate priority energy projects, such as pipelines and coal gasifation or oil shale plants, and set deadlines and recommend waivers to speed federal, state and local government action on permits and other procedures required to get a project started.
Any waivers recommended by the board would have had to be approved by the president and both houses of Congress. In its final form, the bill would have permitted waiving federal laws. It also would have permitted suspension of state and local laws enacted after an application had been made for a project.
What bothered opponents most was that the bill also was construed to permit the waiving of any state law enacted to implement federal laws. This could mean setting aside the state strip-mining and clean-air and water laws.
President Carter had said repeatedly he was opposed to any waiver provision, but the administration nevertheless appeared to go along with the conference provision.
Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) said Congress had transformed "a sensible idea to cut red tape into a monster." He said the final version "makes the federal government a big brother that could trample on states and local rights."
Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), who was among the first to call for a fast track mechanism last year, said the original idea had been turned into a bad bill. It should be a small office, dealing with procedures, not substantive laws, he said. Instead, he said, planners have been talking of starting with about 200 employes and a $22 million budget and setting aside substantive laws if necessary.
Rep. Dave Stockman (R-Mich.) said the conferees had turned a fast track into a circular track that would lead only to litigation and more bureaucratic combat.
Rep. Philip R. Sharp (D-Ind.), one of the few to speak for the bill during final debate, called it a bill "not to be loved but to be passed." It represents the first comprehensive mechanism to move forward quickly on energy production, he said.
Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) was the only member to speak with much fervor on behalf of the bill. Sending the bill back to the conference would kill it, Wright said, and would send a signal to the world that "we are not serious when we say we want energy independence." If the nation had displayed as little resolve in the early 1940s as it has in responding to the energy problem in recent years, it would have lost World War II, he said.
The motion to recommit the bill to conference was supported by 107 Democrats and 125 Republicans and opposed by 122 Democrats and nine Republicans. The only votes against recommittal by Maryland and Virginia members were cast by Maryland Democrat Beverly B. Byron and Virginia Democrat David E. Satterfield III.