A strong congressional counterattack against President Reagan's natural gas decontrol bill began yesterday as a bipartisan House coalition endorsed a measure to roll back price ceilings to 1982 levels and retain federal controls through at least 1987.
"The issue before us is not decontrol, but who controls," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), one of the bill's 26 co-sponsors.
"This bill will reclaim the nation's energy agenda from the oil and gas companies and return it to the public."
The Reagan administration bill and the House alternative unveiled yesterday are expected to serve as rallying points for a volatile debate in Congress over the natural gas dilemma, which has seen prices soar despite ample supply and modest demand.
"It will be a giant fight," said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), "but it is one we can't back away from."
While the expressed intent of both measures is to bring about lower consumer prices, they address the problem from markedly different perspectives.
In essence, supporters of the Reagan three-year decontrol plan maintain that a freer market for the producers and pipeline distributors of natural gas, if combined with federal regulation of the pass-through costs to consumers, eventually will bring prices down.
Backers of the House alternative, however, argue that even stricter government control is needed, and cite ever-increasing prices as evidence that free-market principles of supply and demand are not working.
In Congress, sides are being taken as much along geographic as partisan lines.
With some exceptions, members from the gas-producing states in the South and Southwest are supporting gradual decontrol, while those from the Midwest and Northeast are backing alternatives such as the one proposed yesterday.
Several members and key aides in the House Energy and Commerce Committee said yesterday that when and if a natural gas bill emerges from that panel it most likely will be a version of the coalition bill, not the Reagan proposal.
In the Republican-controlled Senate, some version of Reagan's bill is expected to come out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) is reluctant to push it to the floor any time soon.
"There is extraordinary interest in this issue," said an aide to Rep. Philip R. Sharp (D-Ind.), chairman of Energy and Commerce's subcommittee on fossil and synthetic fuels.
"We're getting four to five calls an hour from members who want to do something, and they're getting hundreds of calls and letters from their constituents," the aide said.
"Given that, it is certain that some bill will emerge, although finding a consensus won't be easy."
Energy Secretary Donald P. Hodel tried and failed earlier this week to convince Sharp and Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee, to submit the administration bill with their names on it.
And his effort to convince moderate Republicans and producer-state Democrats to co-sponsor the bill has met with limited success.
"He called us yesterday and asked us to co-sponsor it," said an aide to Rep. Wayne Dowdy (D-Miss.). "But we told him, 'No thanks.' "
Along with rolling back the price ceilings to last year's levels and extending controls on most natural gas for another four years, the House alternative would prevent distributors from passing along to consumers any purchase price increases of more than 75 percent of the rate of inflation--and even then only if the distributors were able to prove that they had bought the cheapest gas available.
The administration proposal would stop the automatic pass-through of such costs to consumers, but with looser guidelines.