MX vote this week to test Reagan's hard-line tactics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Democrats complain about Ronald Reagan's attention to public image and his lack of interest in the deficit. Some bitterly protested last week when the President warned Congress in gunslinger lingo against raising taxes. His veto pen was drawn, Mr. Reagan said, adding: ``Go ahead. Make my day.'' At the same time, Republican senators felt the long arm of the White House as officials there sent out word to them to toe the Reagan line or risk losing presidential aid in their reelection campaigns. These are not exactly the marks of a happy honeymoon for a newly reelected President who won all but one state. But the administration is showing that although Reagan's presidency may be technically lame-duck, it is certainly not limping.

Members of both parties expect the President to have only a short period to accomplish his goals before the politics of the 1986 elections distract Congress. Meanwhile, Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R) of Kansas said in an interview that the administration has ``decided they're going to play pretty tough.''

President Reagan faces the biggest congressional test of his second term this week when the Senate votes on whether to proceed with building 21 MX missiles this year. It will be the first of four congressional votes on the controversial missile over the next two weeks.

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The White House has cranked up its lobbying effort full tilt behind the MX, which only a few months ago was in deep trouble in the Senate. Close to the decision hour, that effort appears to have paid off. Senate majority whip Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming has predicted that supporters will not need the vote of Vice-President George Bush to break a tie. Foes concede they are fighting uphill.

The President has invited a daily stream of lawmakers, even including some of the MX's implacable foes, to the White House for meals and persuasion. However, his ability to go over congressional heads to the public remains his best asset in the MX battle.

Experts argue over the intricacies of whether the 10-warhead missile is vulnerable and whether the Russians are really afraid of it. But the Reagan administration has reduced the issue to the simple question of whether the United States would be weakened in the Geneva arms talks without commitment to the MX.

``The timing of the vote couldn't have been better'' for the administration, said Senator Kassebaum, who has indicated she will vote against the MX but predicted that her side probably will lose.

``There's no doubt that it's the best politics right now to vote for MX,'' said another opponent, Sen. Jim Sasser (D) of Tennessee.

Regardless of the outcome on MX, the President has already proved his clout on another of his key issues -- taxes. Even before he brandished his veto pen in a speech to business leaders, members of the Senate Budget Committee had backed down on raising taxes. Despite much talk about the need for more revenues to cut the federal deficit, when tax packages came up for a vote in the committee they were easily rejected.

Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida, ranking Democrat on the budget panel, told reporters that ``the President's prohibition'' defeated the idea. Democrats and Republicans are ``not sure about when to put a toe in the water, if ever'' on tax increases, said Senator Kassebaum, a member of the budget committee.

The issues of taxes and the MX missile provide a contrast in Reagan's relations with Congress. In the MX case, the President has stepped into the fray personally. But as the Senate Budget Committee worked for the past two weeks, the White House kept hands off the deliberations over the 1986 federal budget.

``They aren't that interested,'' explained Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, Budget Committee chairman. As a result, the task of drafting a tough budget plan to reduce federal deficits fell to Senator Domenici and fellow Republicans. Only on the tax issue did Reagan become involved, and then only from a distance. However, that tax message was clearly heeded.

The question now is whether the Reagan administration will have similar clout on other issues, including: proposed cuts in programs affecting middle-class Americans; tax reform; building 48 additional MX missiles next year; and support for the contra forces in Central America.

The administration ruffled some GOP feathers last week with its hard-line stance against errant Republicans. A White House aide called to inform Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, one of 22 Republican senators up for reelection in 1986, that Reagan would have more time to help loyal backers at campaign time. Senator Grassley, who opposed the White House on farm aid and defense spending, dispatched a defiant memo proclaiming that ``administration strong-arm tactics'' could only help his popularity among independent-minded Iowans.

Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, who is also up for reelection in 1986, said through an aide that if President Reagan prefers facing the opposition of a Democratic-controlled Senate, then ``you ain't seen nothing yet.''

Sen. Bob Kasten (R) of Wisconsin said in an interview that he continues to receive help from the White House although he fought the President on the farm issue. But Mr. Kasten added, ``I did not vote for the defense reduction.'' And, he said, he is working closely with the administration on tax reform.

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