Nation's hard-nosed governors force Reagan to seek alternate routes to 'new federalism'

Is President Reagan's ''new federalism'' -- a substantial part of his effort to spin the US government in a conservative direction - already in trouble?

Reagan administration officials refuse to concede this. But they say the President has been stung by what he sees as a lack of responsiveness among the nation's governors to his return-of-federal-programs-to-the-states plan. White House officials say Mr. Reagan is now talking about the possibility of a revised proposal.

Rich Williamson, the White House's liaison to the governors, told reporters over breakfast on Friday that the administration was seriouly considering plans to reshape or even cut the size of its new federalism initiative because of insufficient cooperation on the part of governors.

The President's original proposal calls for the federal government to pick up the full tab for medicaid. In exchange, states would take over welfare and food stamps.

But Mr. Williamson said the President now is giving thought to other ways of moving his new federalism forward, should this ''big swap'' concept have to be abandoned. He said the President is seriously considering several alternatives.

One might be for the federal government to administer and finance welfare assistance programs for the aged, blind, and severely disabled if the governors agree to fully assume income maintenance programs for the able-bodied poor.

Another possible alternative, says Williamson, is to transfer more than 40 federal grant programs to the states. The federal government would set up a trust fund to help the states assume the full cost of these programs over an eight-year transition period.

Thus, the administration is indicating it will cancel its plan to pay all medicaid costs if the states continue to remain adamantly opposed to their part of the proposed swap.

When asked if this amounted to a major shift in policy, a White House official told the Monitor, ''It is not as major as all that, but we do insist that there must be a swap. What the governors now seem to be telling us is: 'You take medicaid, and we won't take anything.' ''

But the growing view among Washington observers is this:

* As polls indicate an increasing erosion of trust in Reaganomics, the President for the first time is beginning to feel the loss of initiative - the political clout that enabled him to roll over Congress last year.

* Thus, governors, particularly Democrats, no longer seem to believe, as they did at the National Governors' Conference in Atlantic City, N.J., last year, that they are on the defensive in dealing with the President on any subject -- especially on his project for moving programs back to the states.

In fact, there is evidence of growing resistance in the states to acceptance of any form of new federalism at this time. Many of the governors say that rather than having to accept a Reagan-dictated swap, they are now in a position to tell the President what the shape of that exchange should be.

And the President, apparently taking note of this changing political climate and his slipping public support, has been going out of his way to cooperate with state and local leaders in shaping his new federalism program.

This change came after Reagan discovered that he could not hope to gain congressional approval for a program where he sought to impose a shift of responsibility to the states, without first getting their agreement.

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