Budget countdown begins, with five days till recess

Sen. Dan Quayle (R) of Indiana has a theory about the snarled federal budget dispute. In the next few days, he predicts, the lawmakers will reach an accord. ``I can't see Congress going back to the wrath of the people without a budget,'' says the first-term senator, who will face reelection next year.

Only five days before Congress is scheduled to quit for the summer, agreement on a package to cut the federal budget deficit still looks far away. But the mood in Washington is shifting toward a determination to stop the budget wrangling -- and quickly.

Although there are other ways to reduce federal spending, virtually everyone on Capitol Hill agrees that Congress can make more cuts by passing a budget. Nevertheless, the House is proceeding to pass 10 of 13 appropriations bills, essentially freezing spending at current levels. The move circumvents the budget process, in which Congress is supposed to draft overall spending guidelines in May, then pass the appropriations bills.

The House may have to ``back up'' on some of its spending bills if Congress manages to reach a budget accord, Senate majority leader Robert Dole said yesterday on ABC's ``This Week with David Brinkley.''

The Kansas Republican added that if both chambers can agree that ``we're almost there'' on a budget framework, it could be implemented when Congress returns in September. But he also indicated he would be willing to postpone the recess to finish the budget work right away.

The consensus to come to grips with the budget this week became clear in a sudden turnabout Friday by House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr.

Early in the day the Massachusetts Democrat delivered a feisty statement ridiculing the latest Senate budget offer as ``gimmickry.'' The House would live up to its own deficit reduction plan, he asserted.

By the afternoon some of his members voiced concern about the hard line. The members were ``restless,'' said Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California. ``They know there's pressure about to come down on them.''

So the Speaker issued a revised, conciliatory message. ``The House is serious about budgetary restraint,'' began the updated O'Neill statement. Congress has for 10 years found a way to write a budget, he said. ``With both parties committed to this process, we can do it again this year.''

The softened tone, at the end of a day of verbal potshots over the budget, does not guarantee an accord. The issues dividing the warring budget factions are difficult.

Speaker O'Neill insists that President Reagan take the first step toward accepting the Senate plan, which includes a $5-a-barrel oil-import fee and a delay in indexing income taxes to inflation.

In turn, Senator Doleck and the Reagan administration are insisting that O'Neill agree to put all of the Senate package, including delayed increases for social security payments, on the bargaining table.

Dole said on ABC that it was up to Speaker O'Neill and the President to sit down and decide whether they can accept the ``two big issues'' -- social security restraint and the oil import tax.

Meanwhile, all sides are beginning to awake to the possible embarrassment and damage of leaving town without a budget agreement. Democrats need a budget as proof that they have shed their big-spending ways and want to cut deficits. President Reagan needs an accord on deficit reduction so that Congress can move to his top agenda item, tax reform. Moreover, he can flog Congress for its budget failures, but a total budget collapse might also look like a White House failure.

While the budget process remained in limbo, other stalled legislation has begun to move. A House-Senate conference settled a dispute over $27 million in nonmilitary aid to ``contra'' fighters in Nicaragua. Both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon would be barred from distributing the money under the plan that will go to both houses this week for ratification.

A conference between the two houses also agreed to a defense program that gives the Reagan administration nearly every weapon, large or small, it sought.

But the defense authorization compromise would ``freeze'' spending with an increase only to match inflation.

``The days of big increases in the defense budget are over,'' said House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin, expressing a view that was seconded by Republicans. President Reagan had sought a 5.7 percent after-inflation increase for defense early this year.

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