Reagan: treading on eggs

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The President's strategy for the difficult days ahead is "steady as you go." Mr. Reagan will continue to express unbending firmness on such issues as cutting defense and going ahead with the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia.

But now from his White house associates come indications that, at some point, the President will be willing to find fallback positions in order to put the last stages of his economic program into place.

Several White House aides are using this phrase in terms of the months ahead for the President: "We must show some progress." They seem to be avoiding the assertion, "We must win everything." Presidential accomodation appears to lie just beneath the surface.

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Reagan is particularly aware of the difficulty he faces in trying to bring some 24 moderate Republican House members, hailing from the Northeast and Midwest, behind his new economic initiatives.

These are the House Republicans, often called the "Gypsy Moths," who were so vital, together with the bloc of Southern Democrats, to the Reagan coalition that helped put his economic program into place.

Basically, these GOP moderates are resisting the Reagan thrust to cut defense spending only slightly ($2 billion) for 1982 but trim deeply into social programs and "entitlement" programs -- the latter including social security benefits and other government retirement programs.

Some Gypsy Moths now are saying the military reduction should come to $9 billion in 1982. "And they are particularly opposed to cutting back on entitlements," one White House aide said.

This aide also said that the White House is waiting to hear from these GOP moderates.

This sounded like presidential willingness to compromise -- at some point.

On the AWACS sale, the President will continue to assert there is absolutely no fallback position, that anything short of the sale will erode the US position in the Mideast.

Further, he will continue to express his doubts about the Saudis being willing to accept anything less.

But, within the administration, there is talk of perhaps being able to move to some middle-ground position on the sale if one can be found that would be accepted, though grudgingly, by the Congress and the Saudies.

Meanwhile, the administration is launching an all-out effort to see if it can win over the Senate, which is leaning heavily against the sale.

Already, some 50 members of the Senate have indicated opposition. But the White House says that of those 50 there are about a dozen senators who are at least "listening" to the Reagan arguments. And a few, it says, may be willing in the end to vote for the sale.

The White House strategy envisions the next few weeks and months as a period of walking on eggs. The President is fully aware that any concessions he may make to the Gypsy Moths could cause another necessary element in his House coalition -- the Southern conservative Democrats -- to drop away.

These conservatives are particularly supportive of the presidential plans for a military buildup and for letting the spending-cut ax fall most heavily on social programs.

The President thus sees that his political task is one that will require extreme skill.

To support his legislative initiatives the President once again will be going to the people, with a major television address scheduled for Wednesday or Thursday night.

But Reagan also will be talking to "Main Street" -- where polls show he is continuing to enjoy strong support.

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