Washington — An extraordinary battle is shaping here between President Reagan and the Congress which could affect the economy and the success or failure of the Reagan administration.
It could also tip the wavering balance between executive and legislative authority and decide the vitality of what many consider a conservative resurgence. Finally, it may decide whether a president with professional skill as communicator can appeal directly to voters -- over the head of hesitant legislators.
It is a battle between President Reagan, who says the villain of America's economic plight is big government, and Congress, which helped to create big government and which has always looked to government spending as its chief instrument.
With what many regarded as a superb delivery, Mr. Reagan appealed to the nation on Feb. 5, using visual aids -- a quarter, a dime, and a penny -- to illustrate "what this 1960 dollar is worth today."
"We are in the worst economic mess since the great depression," he said. "We are threatened with an economic calamity of tremendous proportions."
It was a powerful statement, designed to prepare the nation for what is to follow on Feb. 18, when he offers a bill of particulars for budget slashes.
The President has two big difficulties, as seen here. First, he is asking Congress to do the thing it hates most -- allocate belt-tightening hardship among various rival constituents groups. At the same time, he wants to offer tax cuts to upper- and middle-income groups, with consequences which some economists regard as risky or inflationary. Can he persuade Congress to vote the spending cuts as well as the tax cuts?
The drama of the developing situation could be spectacular. When former President Carter urged energy conservation in a battle which he called "the moral equivalent of war" the Democratic Congress ignored him.
The issue this year is bigger and Reagan has stacked his prestige on it. Today, Congress is on a week's vacation, listening to voter response which is said to be broadly pro-Reagan. But this is before the actual specifics of Reagan's plans are known. Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee said: "We're going to have the biggest domestic legislative battle this country has seen perhaps since Franklin Roosevelt."
Many think Reagan will get only part of what he wants. In that case, he might come back at the close of 1981 and ask Congress for authority to impound congressionally approved funds. Richard Nixon exercised this right and Congress canceled it. Reagan might ask for authority to "rescind" funds subject to later reconsideration by Congress. This would amount to an item veto.
Meanwhile, Reagan critics are saying that the President has oversimplified the nation's economic problems. For example, Reagan has said that the nation is "very much worse off" because of rising prices than it was in 1960. Economists contend that actual standards of living have risen and that the poor now have medicaid, Head Start, food stamps, and similar benefit s.