Congress chases after alternatives to Reagan budget

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The mood in Washington is fractious, anxious.

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.

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''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.

In a Monitor sampling of 10 veteran Washington observers -- including political strategists of both parties active in the last two presidential campaigns, presidential scholars, senior correspondents, and congressmen -- eight of the 10 think Reagan will not run again in 1984.

While not an indication of what will happen (all agree the White House must plan for him to run but that no hard decision has been made), the sampling does reflect the mood of the town. At best, a mixed economic recovery is anticipated.

''The White House is going to become an increasingly unpleasant place to be, '' Pease says, reflecting the general view. ''In 1984, he will be viewed as a very great liability to Republican candidates.''

However, the respondent who knows Reagan the best on a personal basis -- a veteran of his presidential campaigns -- sees Reagan hardened in his determination, not softened by the adversities ahead.

''I wouldn't want to bet today,'' says the longtime Reagan supporter. ''But if pressed, I'd bet he will run. When decision time comes, it won't be clear that Reagan's won, that he's done what he wanted to do. He is really, sincerely, conscientiously interested in saving the country, in turning this thing around, and changing the tone and direction of government.

''There can be all varieties of success. Some will say he's done better than we thought he would. Some will say he's been a disaster, others an unmitigated success. In all three instances, knowing him, I could see him want to continue. The scenario where he's least likely to run is if he's seen as an unmitigated success - though that's not likely to be the case.

''He's got a stubborn streak in him. He wants to win. If he's half way to winning -- or especially if people say this guy's a turkey -- I think he'll run.''

Tactically, some Reagan aides think the President must try to find some issue he can win on in Congress.

Washington, frankly, is not confident of the President's program,'' one of his backers concedes. ''A large part of what he's doing right now is the old axiom that the best defense is a good offense.''

''This past year is likely the best year he will ever have,'' this Reagan veteran continues. ''He's not thinking yet he has to compromise. I hope he is successful, through his offensive program, in winning the first victory this spring. If he doesn't win it, he's in trouble. Whether he's Ronald Reagan or a Democrat, we've already (had) too many troubled presidencies in recent years. I want him to win so we can proceed, rather than bog down in a malaise.''

In terms of public support, Reagan's first-year round of budget and tax cuts, and defense hike, may be all the public will go for, says Burns Roper, president of the Roper Organization.

The public doesn't want as big an increase in defense spending as the President's budget outlines, Mr. Roper says.

''We've had a real turnaround on that,'' he says. ''A year ago, 12 percent of the public said we were spending too much on defense, 56 percent too little. This year we've got 27 percent saying we're spending too much, 29 percent too little. In a sense that represents satisfaction, a balance. But as the pressure gets greater, it's going to turn back the other direction.''

''The economy is going to be the answer,'' Roper concludes. ''If this recession turns around quickly, then there may be new life for Reaganomics.''

To the politicians inside the White House and Congress, however, there seems to be little to do but wait to see whether the recovery comes. This makes Washington fretful, wanting some way to hedge their bets. Reagan himself seems the most comfortable waiting it out.

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