Washington — The senator used to be a basketball star, and he is going after David Stockman as if they were playing one on one -- feinting, eyes up, looking for a small hole he can drive through and score.
But Mr. Stockman did not become President Reagan's budget team captain by being slow on defense. He keeps up a steady stream of figures that support the administration's economic program, while Sen. Bill Bradley circles warily, countering with his own numbers and trying to expose what he calls Stockman's "logical inconsistencies.
Outside, the southern sun is tempting magnolias and cherry blossoms into bloom. School groups cluster on the Capitol lawn like camped soldiers, occasionally rallying around a teacher and charging the Rotunda.
Inside, spring is bringing out politicians with alternative budget figures. And this year the differences seem to be particularly pronounced.
"It's not usual for the discrepancy to be this wide," says Dr. Henry Aaron, an economist at the Brookings Institution.
Senator Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat, and Mr. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, are squared off at a minor hearing, throwing statistics in an effort to disprove each other's economic point of view.
It is a skirmish in a dispute that has swept Washington in recent weeks. On one side are Republicans, who forecast a healthy economy if the President's budget and tax program passes. On the other are those who say the predictions are just wishful thinking.
Two weeks ago, the Congressional Budget Office issued a report that said the 1982 budgget deficit could be much higher than the $45 billion forecast by the White House. In a much-publicized retort, President Reagan labeled CBO's findings "phony" -- though he later softened his rhetoric, saying the two figures were different because they were derived from differing sets of "expectations and assumptions."
In the meantime, Senator Bradley sent a letter to the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee, asking it to take the administrations's economic assumptions and "run them through the computer." The result was yet another report, released recently, projecting a deficit of $111.5 billion by 1984 if President Reagan's program is enacted unscathed. Inflation, unemployment, and interest rates would remain about the same, according to the committee's Democratic analysis.
And it seems as if everyone from K Street to Capitol Hill has been racing to produce a personally tailored alternative to the administration's supply-side scenario. Milk producers suggested their own version of dairy price support cuts. The Northeast-Midwest congressional coalition volunteered an analysis outlining the effects on their states, along with proposed budgetary changes. The Congressional Black Caucus churned out an entirely new budget. So did Rep. Donald J. Pease (D) of Ohio, whose thick tome probably left a hard-worked staff strewn about the office, gasping for breath.
And on Tuesday, House Democrats unveiled a budget featuring three-fourths of Mr. Reagan's proposed spending cuts -- but with less money for guns and more for social programs.
The main differences of opinion seems to be in the perception of history's importance.
"An economic model [such as produced the Joint Economic Committee and CBO figures] is not a scientific calculating machine," Director Stockman said when Senator Bradley threw figures at him. "As big and awesome as these models are, essentially what they do is extrapolate from the recent past."
Thus the models ignore certain changes in the economy, Stockman said. He pointed out that three years ago the same committee's economic model predicted that inflation in 1980 would be 5.4 percent. In fact, the figure was closer to 10 percent.
Bradley (probably the only former New York Knick to have attended Princeton andm Oxford) bore down on what he called the "logical inconsistencies" of this point. No matter what our mistakes have been, he said, if we don't study the past our predictions will be based on belief -- and what we hope for shouldn't be packaged and presented as a forecast.
"Maybe I've talked to [former Federal Reserve Chairman] Arthur Burns too much about this," Bradley said, "but the administration's tax cuts are a form of religion not based on empirical evidence."
At least one liberal economist admits that econometric models have not been very accurate in the past. But that does not automatically make the administration's predictions more accurate, he says -- adding that it is "somewhat scandalous" for the White House not to make public its figuring processes.
The disagreements the Stockman-Bradley dialogue symbolize are thick as the tour buses around the White House this spring. Congressmen, economists, and Cabinet members are facing off in print, off the record, and over lunch. Looking beyond the issue of the moment, economist Irwin Kellner has pointed out in Newsweek that members of his profession have only recently taken on the role of soothsayers -- and that perhaps they should do more explaining and less predicting.
In the end, it seems everyone has numbers that prove they are right.
"There is a lot of evidence around," said Stockman, "and I guess we pick the evidence which supports our thesis."