Washington — President Reagan's tax-reform effort was tripped up by members of his own party on its way to the House floor. Republicans rebelled against their party leader because they had been overlooked by the White House and felt little public pressure to support it. Although administration officials were trying to repair relations with the GOP leaders yesterday, the vote Wednesday against bringing up the tax overhaul bill revealed basic weaknesses in the President's highly touted tax-reform campaign.
Mr. Reagan has failed to generate much public enthusiasm for rewriting the tax code, despite travels from coast to coast on its behalf. Crowds cheered him, but polls recorded barely a blip of popularity for his tax reform policies.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill lawmakers began stacking up letters from constituents who wanted to protect existing tax breaks, not remove them. They also received strong pressure from business and other lobbying organizations opposed to changes in the United States tax code. Much of this came from interests in home districts that would be affected by tax reform.
As a result, Reagan has had little help as he urges tax overhaul on a dubious Congress. ``There's never going to be a vote that suggests excitement and an atmosphere of crisis around tax reform, because it ain't there,'' a top GOP House aide says.
Beyond the public indifference, the President has run into private difficulties within his party. House Republican leaders have long complained that the White House shuts them out of the decisionmaking process.
During the tax-writing effort, the administration has worked with Democrats, especially Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
``The liberal wing of the Democratic Party wrote the bill,'' says Rep. Dick Cheney (R) of Wyoming.
Representative Cheney, who helped engineer the setback for the tax proposal, says that he and others warned the President earlier that ``we've got big trouble'' on the tax bill. ``They chose to ignore that,'' says the lawmaker.
The GOP leaders, who have been staunch Reagan supporters on virtually every other top issue, formed the coalition that defeated the rule required for bringing the bill to the House floor. Only 14 Republicans voted to bring up the bill, compared with 188 Democrats.
Within hours of the surprise setback Wednesday, President Reagan was meeting with GOP members, trying to change votes. It was the first all-out effort by the White House to woo House Republicans on the tax bill.
Earlier, the President had asked the GOP members, in effect, to hold their noses and vote for the House Ways and Means bill just to keep the tax-reform process moving toward the Senate where it could be improved.
That strategy was ``abominable,'' according to Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, a member of the GOP leadership who has his own proposal for tax reform.
House Republicans have several concerns about the Ways and Means tax bill. Chief among them are maximum tax rate of 38 percent, instead of the 35 percent proposed by the President, and the personal exemption, which would be $1,500 instead of $2,000 the GOP sought.
Republican leaders charge the bill would lead to an economic slowdown.
Representative Kemp says he and colleagues were dismayed by predictions from Bob Packwood, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, that the Senate would not be able to make major changes in the House version.
Republicans are seeking assurances from the White House that the President would veto any tax reform package that failed to meet their top objectives.
Already the administration is meeting one House GOP objective -- more attention. White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan and Secretary of the Treasury James A. Baker III met with Republican members yesterday.
``We're finally talking,'' a GOP House leadership aide says, recalling that Mr. Regan had come to Capitol Hill last September and promised to come to leadership meetings and communicate more.
``That was the last time we saw him'' until the surprise defeat on Wednesday.
``We sent a powerful message,'' says the aide, adding that the lesson for the GOP House is that ``if you're Mr. Nice Guy, you're ignored.''
Despite the complaint, some on Capitol Hill expect the Republicans to muster enough votes to revive the tax overhaul process. Not only would an absolute defeat damage the Reagan administration, but it could also harm the Republicans if Democrats used the issue in political campaigns.
Reagan introduced tax reform to lower rates for working people and lure Democrats into the GOP. Republicans defeat it, the campaign might backfire.