GOP conservatives hit Reagan for less-than-hefty cuts in defense

By opting for continued hefty increases in defense spending, President Reagan is creating consternation on Capitol Hill and complicating the path toward a reduction of the staggering national budget deficit.

Not only the Democrats are critical of the President's decision to preserve most of the military spending increases sought by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Republicans, too, are upset by his reluctance to slow his defense buildup in order to begin closing the budget gap.

''The continued failure of the administration to deal with the deficit puts at risk everything Ronald Reagan believes in,'' said Rep. Richard Cheney of Wyoming, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, on Wednesday. The deficit ''potentially'' is Mr. Reagan's Vietnam, he told reporters in a breakfast meeting.

Congressman Cheney, a staunch Reagan supporter, voiced concern that, if the President submits a budget that couples big decreases in domestic spending with signficant defense increases - as now seems likely - the Republicans will not be able to get a package approved by the House and the ball will be handed to the Democrats. Such a presidential package, he said, would be ''dead on arrival'' and could lead to stalemate.

The net result, he warned, is that Congress by next summer may be caught in the cycle of past years: fighting over continuing resolutions without a budget and talking about tax increases.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee , also has reacted negatively to Mr. Weinberger's announcement of relatively modest reductions in defense outlays for the next three years. He told the Albuquerque Journal Tuesday that Secretary Weinberger used an outdated base figure as the starting point for reductions in order to get Reagan to agree to more money.

Many conservative Republicans had hoped Reagan would submit a deficit-reduction package that would be salable to Congress and avoid the need to raise taxes. Such conservatives oppose a tax increase, not simply for economic reasons. They have their eye on the '86 and '88 elections and do not want the GOP tarred with a politically sensitive tax package.

Democrats also are in a dilemma, say experts. If they restore the domestic cuts the President proposes and reduce defense spending, they are open to the charge of undermining national security. ''Both parties would hope the President would make it easier for Congress,'' says budget expert Allen Schick. ''They're angry because their lives have been complicated. They thought that, together with the White House, they could do something good. But it's not that easy.''

Ultimately, Democrats and Republicans in Congress may strike a deal, political analysts say. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. has said he is willing to consider a package. So has Sen. Robert Dole, the new Senate majority leader. ''We just can't do all the things they (the administration) want to do to other programs and leave defense virtually unchanged,'' Senator Dole said last week. ''It's going to have to be substantial on the defense side if we're going to sell the package.''

When the President met with Republican lawmakers two weeks ago, Cheney said, he gave every indication of tilting toward the deficit-reduction package outlined by Budget Director David A. Stockman and to strive for defense cuts that would reduce the deficit to 4 percent of GNP in fiscal 1986, 3 percent in 1987 and 2 percent in 1988. But then Reagan changed in ''tone and tenor.''

The congressman and others presume that Reagan is pursuing his customary

strategy of yielding the minimum on defense spending at the outset in order to bargain later and emerge with as much as possible. Reagan is also thought to be concerned about not conveying a lessening of military resolve just as the United States is about to resume an arms dialogue with the Soviet Union.

But Cheney, a ''hawk'' on defense, argues that nothing is being negotiated in Geneva that offers immediate prospects of savings in the defense budget. And he adds that, as a lame-duck president, Mr. Reagan has only the first year in which to try to bring the deficit under control.

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