Washington — The future of President Reagan's coalition in the House, which has moved his economic package forward effectively so far, is under strong scrutiny here. Will it last? And, if so, how long?
The administration view is that this wedding of Southern Democrats with Republicans in Congress will persist -- and perhaps become permanent.
White House communications chief David Gergen sees it as reflecting "the beginnings of what could be a significant shift in American politics."
White House chief of staff James A. Baker III forecasts that the coalition will hold firm throughout votes on the President's economic proposals and perhaps on Reagan's military initiatives as well.
Any falloff from coalition support would most likely come on the Reagan social programs when they are introduced later on -- but this erosion, as Messrs. Baker and Gergen see it, would more likely come from within the Republican ranks than from the conservatives Southern Democratic allies.
Meanwhile, the Democratic congressional leadership, smarting from defeats, refuses to acknowledge openly that the ties of some Democrats to Mr. Reagan are more than fleeting.
But, privately, many Democrats on Capitol Hill are viewing the new Democratic links with the President as something that may persist throughout the Reagan administration, and perhaps for years beyond.
These Democrats make their judgment based on what they hear from the folks back home -- support for spending cuts and a balanced budget which they concede is philosophically in line with the Reagan program.
Democratic leaders in the House, however, are putting intense pressure on the party conservatives who went over to Reagan on important economic votes last week.
They are saying, in effect, that these Democrats have defected three times and that it is time for them to show their loyalty to the party and vote with the leadership next time.
House Democratic leaders did give some consideration to penalizing the defectors, perhaps by taking away subcommittee chairmanships.
But this approach has been abandoned, lest, by so doing, the punishment so anger the defectors that they abandon the party completely on future votes.
Looking ahead, political observers here see an enlargement of the group of Democrats that will be receptive to voting with a conservative Republican President.
They look at the Sunbelt, which will gain a number of new seats in Congress because of population gains, and see the likelihood that voters in these states will be electing more Reagan-leaning Democrats.
These observers also believe that the President will be able to keep conservative Democrats with him for the foreseeable future -- including coming votes on tax cuts and military spending, and on issues like abortion, prayer in schools, and tax credits for private schools.
But the pundits also say that should Reagan plunge in the polls -- especially if his popularity should drop below 50 percent -- then the coalition might begin to erode.
That would be the time when the Democratic leadership would become much more persuasive in its efforts to bring conservative Democrats and their votes back home.