Can Reagan keep up his legislative pace?
Washington — Congress showed less enthusiasm in 1981 in crimping and containing the nation's burgeoning federal domestic programs than in launching them a decade and a half ago.
As measured by congressional roll-call support, President Reagan made a ''good'' leadership showing during the past year, winning 81.9 percent of the votes on which he took a clear-cut position.
This clearly outdistanced his three immediate White House predecessors. President Carter averaged a 76.4 percent ''win'' rate for his four years, President Ford 57.7 percent, and President Nixon 67 percent.
But President Johnson, who drove the Great Society legislative wagon through Congress with its members clambering aboard, retains the modern record for Capitol Hill mastery. He was the victor in 93 percent of the congressional votes on which he took a clear stand in 1965.
''The moral of the (Reagan-Congress) story in 1981 is that a president can lose some votes -- as long as they're not the votes he calls the key ones,'' says Congress expert Thomas E. Mann, executive director of the American Political Science Association.
''Reagan's numbers were good, given he was a Republican president facing a divided Congress,'' Mr. Mann says. ''But they weren't dramatic compared to Kennedy, Johnson, and Eisenhower's records.'' Eisenhower's 89 percent of his key congressional battles during his first year, 1953, and Kennedy's 87.1 percent in 1963, also surpassed Reagan's showing.
The key to Reagan's 1981 success in Congress -- holding the focus to a few crucial votes -- is likely to be an even more important tactic in 1982, as victories may prove more elusive.
Already, Reagan's support is clearly weaker in those regions feeling the current recession most sharply or most worried about the impact of federal budget cuts.
The preponderance of Reagan congressional support lies in the South, according to an analysis of Reagan's Capitol Hill support prepared by Congressional Quarterly (CQ), the Washington research organization.
Reagan's backing was soft in several Eastern, Midwestern, and Western states regarded as swing states in presidential elections. In the East, as expected, Massachusetts congressmen were his weakest supporters, voting with the President only 37 percent of the time. But in the New York and New Jersey's delegations, states the Republicans hope to convert to GOP ways, Reagan's support did not reach 50 percent.
In the Midwest, Michigan's congressional support rating for Reagan was 40 percent, Iowa's 46 percent. And in the West, the Washington delegation from his native state of California backed him at a 51 percent average rate. He fared even worse in the other two Pacific Coast states of Oregon and Washington.
Overall, Reagan's support rating in the House averaged 63 percent in the South, 53 percent in the West, 52 percent in the Midwest, and 48 percent in the East. This suggests that congressmen already may feel freer to differ with the White House than the steady publicity about big Reagan victories might indicate.
What was unusual in 1981 was Reagan's backing from members of his own party. In the Senate, Republicans voted with Reagan on 80 percent of the roll calls counted by CQ as loyalty votes.
Leading the opposition was Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who opposed Reagan 63 percent of the time. He was followed closely by fellow Democratic Sens. Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland. Among Senate Republicans, Connecticut's Lowell P. Weicker Jr. led the Reagan opposition ratings with 30 percent, followed by Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland and William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware.
Congressional experts caution against making too much either of key presidential victories or of session-long averages in appraising presidential impact. Congressmen often ''hedge their bets'' by voting against the president or for him at various points, to reduce re-election risks. And as in Reagan's case, presidents often reduce their demands to eke out a ''win'' that is more accurately a compromise.
''Reagan's played the floor politics in Congress very well,'' observes Mann. ''He hasn't yet faced the vote where he's played all his chips, and then been made to pay for it.''
But 1982 is a new congressional season, Mann says, quoting the new Washington quip that ''Reagan won the battle in 1981 and lost the budget.''
Predicted federal budget deficits of $100 billion or more yearly may compel Congress to undo or offset Reagan's 1981 victories on tax legislation. The sense in Washington is that Reagan has made his chief imprint on Congress and that now he must keep it from eroding.
To date, some of Reagan's most notable successes have come after he put his personal prestige on the line. This was the case with the Saudi AWACS vote, which he won after arguing a congressional veto would undermine his authority to conduct foreign policy. It remains to be demonstrated how long he will be able to use this tactic, congressional experts say.