Congress chases after alternatives to Reagan budget
The mood in Washington is fractious, anxious.Skip to next paragraph
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A battle is near and will involve an incredulous Congress and the long-held convictions of a conservative President. But politicians are uncertain how the battle will be pitched and who will be its casualties.
Congress must form new coalitions, some members predict, before serious counterproposals to President Reagan's budget can evolve.
''You're going to find a new locus of decisionmaking in Congress,'' says Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa. ''Where it will be, no one knows. But it won't be where it was in 1981.''
Quick Democratic alternatives, such as the simple budget freeze at fiscal 1982 levels already rejected by the President despite some interest from Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, will not easily move Mr. Reagan, Congressman Leach says. Alternatives will take time, other coalitions on the Hill, and a Democratic strategy different from last year's.
Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans worry that the deficit is fueling high interest rates. Other Democrats and moderate Republicans see defense outlays devouring social programs. In May, Congress yet again will have to consider raising the debt ceiling.
''In the House, the shoe is partly on the Democrats' foot,'' Leach says. ''They have to come forward with counterproposals. To the degree these reflect economic conditions, this will not be easy.
''There are some sensible alternatives. On the income or tax policy side, reduction in windfall profits and sale of tax losses are two obvious targets. On the outflow side, defense is going to come into some very serious reconsideration.
''To hold the boll weevils, the Democrats have to be big for defense - that was the big quid pro quo before. The Democrats have to decide whether to move to the center and work with moderate Republicans, or go for their own plan that may hold more pitfalls than the President's plan. That decision has not been made.''
The fall election is at most a backdrop for Washington's current squirming. ''It's not that they're running from Reagan because he or they are in political trouble,'' says Congress expert Thomas E. Mann. ''It's because they really don't believe in his program.''
Reagan is seen at the moment as riding four tracks. First, he must deal with the immediate domestic decisions - the annual budget cycle. Second, as head of the Republican Party, he must lead the GOP in the fall biennial elections -- the two-year congressional cycle. Third, he and his men must prepare for his 1984 reelection, whether he decides to run or not -- the four-year presidential cycle. Finally, since 1964, he has risen to lead a slice of the American political spectrum -- for him, a 24-year cycle of ideological leadership if he stays in office until 1988.
It is this last, long-term ideological cycle that is driving the other three, members of both parties agree. Washington, used to more give and compromise, is perplexed.
''I don't think there's anything devious about what he's putting out,'' says Rep. Donald J. Pease (D) of Ohio, member of the Democratic whip organization, of theories that Reagan is trying to trick Democrats ''into being responsible for a deficit-ridden budget and trying to create a campaign issue.''
''I take him at face value,'' he says. ''This is vintage Reagan. He's just following his philosophy and principles right down to the bitter end. He does want to expand defense. He does want to cut back on social programs. He does believe, against all advice, that the economic recovery program will work and the economy will turn around.''
Reagan's convictions are also seen to be setting the stage for his 1984 reelection decision.