Washington — US business was a strong shoulder behind last year's passage of President Reagan's Economic Recovery Program. Now, with this year's budget stalled somewhere between Capitol Hill and the White House, business unity in support of the program is showing signs of strain.
''You're just besieged by (businessmen) who don't want leasing provisions changed, don't want energy tax credits repealed, don't like the minimum tax (on corporations),'' complains a senior Republican congressional staffer. ''They all start off by saying 'these deficits are terrible,' but they don't have any suggestions as to what might be done.''
Business representatives say reports of corporate America's doubts about Reaganomics are greatly exaggerated, with the press whipping a few minor disagreements into major news. Liberal critics, meanwhile, claim cracks in the facade reveal deeper divisions within, and an unease about what Reagan's policies have wrought.
''This year, (business) is confronted with the consequences of having got what they wanted, and not knowing where to go from here,'' says Tom Field, executive director of Tax Analyst, a Washington-based tax newsletter.
Last year, business lobbyists saw much of their advice become law. A loose organization of lobbyists, dubbed the Carlton Group after their hotel meeting place, sketched what became the accelerated depreciation provisions of the tax bill, for instance. In February, when it seemed Reagan might recommend tax increases in his State of the Union address, a corps of Chamber of Commerce executives marched grimly across Lafayette Square and changed his mind.
This year, say congressional aides, the business parade isn't so much in step. ''There isn't the kind of cohesiveness we saw last year,'' says an aide to a Democratic congressman deeply involved in the budget.
Last year, business was pushing for the passage of one key issue, accelerated depreciation. This year, they are fighting numerous tax increases, particularly a suggested corporate minimum tax, and repeal of the leasing provision.
''It's a defensive year, instead of an offensive one,'' says the aide.
The most publicized disagreement among business groups came last month, when the Business Roundtable (an organzation of 200 top executives) suggested President Reagan consider stretching out the 1983 personal income tax cut as a last resort to cut budget deficits.
About the same time, the National Federation of Independent Business sent Reagan a letter, asking him to look seriously at budget alternatives then being prepared by Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico and Rep. Phil Gramm (D) of Texas.
Business group officials say such complaints don't constitute a rebellion. ''The business community obviously is less cohesive than it was last year,'' says Paul Huard, a vice-president at the National Association of Manufacturers, ''but I think that's been exaggerated. The press has blown that all out of proportion.''
And a recent Wall Street Journal/Gallup poll of chief executives found more than 90 percent had at least a ''fair amount'' of confidence in Reagan's program. However, 36 percent said the budget deficit is the economic problem that worries them most. Forty-six percent cited high interest rates.
Liberals claim business simply supports Reagan's rhetoric, while growing increasingly restive about the results of his policies.
Business has had ''more of a surface cohesiveness than agreement around the details of the program,'' says James Johnson, former executive assistant to Walter Mondale. ''Peer pressure has made executives reluctant to break ranks, while privately many of them express doubts'' about deficits and the size of the tax cuts.
Business organizations such as the Carlton Group and the US Chamber's Citizens Choice have been extremely successful at altering the tax code, say liberals. The capital gains tax is down to 50 percent, depreciation has been greatly liberalized, and the corporate income tax will constitute but 7.7 percent of total federal tax revenues by 1987, if current law is unaltered. In 1948 the corporate tax was 23.2 percent of the total.
Business may be snared in a paradox: They need the cash from their new tax breaks for productivity-enhancing investment. They also strongly support the three-year, personal income tax cuts. But they're battered by high interest rates, caused in part by huge deficits the tax cuts helped build.
''It's a Catch-22,'' admitted one business executive.