Congress sheds election-year timidity to move on deficit trims

Bold moves on Capitol Hill can be as rare as hens' teeth during the months before an election, and Congress this year is spending much of its time on symbolic skirmishes, while avoiding controversial action.

Even as lawmakers deliver emotion-laden warnings against American involvement in Central America, the majority in Congress is almost certain to take the cautious middle road on military aid to El Salvador.

A joint House-Senate conference committee, to meet this week, is expected to give President Reagan at least some of the additional money he seeks. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, a staunch opponent of military aid to El Salvador, has conceded that the House will go along with some of the $62 million approved by the Senate last week for supplemental aid to the Central American country.

The question is whether Congress will agree to a controversial $21 million in aid for rebels in Nicaragua.

But Congress is making one surprise show of determination by taking moves to reduce the federal deficit. So deep is the growing public wariness over the deficit that legislators can no longer ignore such a troublesome issue even in an election year.

The lawmakers are not resolving the problem, or even confronting the most difficult elements in it. But at least they have begun chipping away at the giant. ''It's only a down payment on the deficit,'' says George A. Ramonas, an aide to Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico. ''Nobody's kidding anybody.''

But if the proposals now moving rapidly on the Hill are enacted, says the aide, then ''yes, Congress has done quite a lot.''

Both houses have tax plans for raising about $50 billion over three years, both are considering ''reconciliation'' bills to set spending limits, and the House late last week passed a budget aimed at saving $182 billion over three years.

The measures have a heavy dose of politics, starting with using the right buzz words. No longer do we have a tax and spending ''budget.'' The new name is ''deficit reduction package.'' And the House Democrats went further, by giving their deficit reduction plan the appealing title of ''pay-as-you-go'' with the provision that spending increases require new tax revenues.

It's a budget that ''all of my (Democratic) candidates can take home and talk about in a very positive sense,'' says a very satisfied Rep. Tony Coelho of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The proposals from both parties are carefully crafted to avoid offending vast numbers of voters. The biggest cuts are in the military. (The House wants a $95 .6 billion trim over three years while the Senate GOP is seeking a $41 billion cut.) New taxes include loophole closings and adjustments that will spread increases broadly and hit voters indirectly. Savings in medicare and medicaid will be chiefly through technical changes and restrictions on payments to hospitals.

Most voters will not feel the pinch. Congress can ''achieve these small savings without hurting people,'' says a House GOP leadership aide.

These kindest cuts of all will almost certainly produce fewer savings than President Reagan proposed when he called for a $100 billion downpayment on the federal deficit. But the Reagan estimates assume cuts that are probably impossible to pass in Congress. For example, the President has proposed cuts in food stamps, in women and infant nutrition programs, and in farm supports that are unlikely to win passage.

The final savings may be closer to $50 billion to $70 billion over three years, while budget deficits continue to soar toward $200 billion per year. Even the House-passed ''deficit reduction package'' projects $175.8 billion in red ink for fiscal 1985.

But there is hope in Congress, nonetheless, that the first tentative attempts will transform into an all-out attack on the federal budget deficit early next year. ''If we are willing to do this much'' in an election year, says Mr. Ramonas, then Congress ''will seriously consider the problem and make a lot of efforts next year.''

''We don't just solve problems like the deficit in one year,'' says the Domenici aide. He adds that ''January and February of 1985 is not going to be a fun time'' because then Congress will have to begin clamping down on the sensitive issues of medicare, medicaid, cost-of-living increases, and the farm program.

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