Washington — Congressmen returning to their home states and districts for spring recess are not finding it easy to read the grass roots for political wisdom. There is still general support abroad for President Reagan's economic program. And yet the returning politicians are having to face educators, mayors , and social services administrators who suggest trouble at home if they do sign on to the big Reagan budget cuts.
Meanwhile, back here in Washington, the administration and conservative pressure groups are warning senators and representatives that they'll be in trouble if they don't go along.
The White House reportedly is inviting some 900 regional editors and broadcasters to the White House for briefings, a move aimed at keeping the drumfire of pressure going in the hinterlands.
And the National Conservative Political Action Committee has declared it is spending $1 million to defeat four key Democratic members of Congress -- majority leader Jim Wright of Texas, Budget Committee chairman James R. Jones of Oklahoma, and Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois in the House, and liberal Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland.
The American public appears ambivalent about the President's economic program. Popular support is thought to be still decisively with Mr. Reagan, though it has waned a bit. Yet, according to a recent Gallup poll, the public doesn't expect the program to show results even a year from now. It expects inflation to be just as bad then, and unemployment a point or so worse, according to a recent opinion sample.
Also, congressmen find it hard to know just how to make their pitch. The three Republican senators who bolted ranks because they saw too steep a deficit ahead in every year of a first Reagan term were on to the same point as the Democratic leadership in the House: the public thinks deficits cause inflation.
Going home is tough for politicians like Michigan Democratic Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., up for reelection in 1982. Some Republican strategists are trying to coax Michigan's popular moderate Gov. William Milliken to oppose him. And if Mr. Riegle votes with Reagan on budget cuts that hurt Detroit, he risks losing his liberal base.
"Riegle will find chaos in Detroit," says Clyde Cleveland, a black city councilman there and vice-chairman of the state Democratic Party. "The unemployment rate is 60 percent for minority youths here. The man in the White House is talking about cutting programs that have meant people's survival.The city is going to have to pick up the salaries of 1,500 CETA workers. That's about $6 million we don't have. We're anticipating a $135 million deficit. Then you have Mr. Riegle voting with the President on those budget cuts. Now he's coming back to explain his vote. He's gotm some explaining!"
Texas congressmen likewise feel a double squeeze. "Republicans and conservative political action committees are concentrating a lot of money and a lot of organizational effort here, and the Republican governor is putting his influence behind the President's program," says Duane Holman, director of the Texas Democratic Party.
"But they're also going to be getting a lot of questions from people on programs slated for drastic cutbacks."
Minnesota already has had something of a dry run on the Reagan multiyear tax cut venture, so congressmen heading there will meet a load of skepticism, says Michael Hatch, chairman of the state's Democratic organization.
The Democratic Party in Minnesota hit bottom in 1978, two years before the national party lost the presidency and the Senate. A new Republican governor, Al Quie, pushed a tax cut of roughly 10 percent a year through a cowed Democratic legislature.
The tax cuts were launched when Minnesota had a budget surplus. "We're going to have a $100 million deficit this biennium," Hatch says. Thus, say Minnesota politicians, the Reagan tax cut proposal in Washington is linked to the state's growing financial morass, signaling a possible Democratic come back there in 1982.
On opposite coasts, California and Massachusetts are feeling the impact on local budgets of drastic property tax cutbacks approved by the voters in referendums --Proposition 13 in California and Proposition 2 1/2 in Massachusetts.
How building negative reaction to cutbacks in these states will affect attitudes toward the federal cuts proposed by Reagan is not yet clear.
Says California pollster Mervin Field: "This is the Year of the Crunch in California, . . . and there will be a real cutback in services. Now comes the Reagan program, with less funds for the state, making the anguish over state taxes and spending more acute."