Reagan still on defensive after his kickoff address. Democrats, partisan colors showing, look to their own agenda

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The annual State of the Union address gives United States presidents the opportunity to set the tone, if not the agenda, for the coming legislative season. But in his sixth such speech before assembled members of the House and Senate and other dignitaries, Ronald Reagan seems to have fumbled the ball. The sharply partisan reception President Reagan received in the House chamber Tuesday night underscores the rift between White House and Capitol Hill in this final phase of the Reagan presidency and suggests confrontations yet to come.

Indeed, the Democrats, now the majority in both Senate and House of Representatives, are trying to shape a congressional agenda independent of the White House, as they forge ahead with a potpourri of hearings and legislation.

Reagan's address, they say, only underscored the differences between them.

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Politeness and civility normally reign in a joint session of Congress. Yet the atmosphere at times during the President's speech seemed to suggest the raucus confines of the British Parliament, replete with hooting opposition backbenchers.

``I have never seen anything like it in my 22 years on the Hill,'' said Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, the House majority whip, in a typical comment.

``The Democrats are up,'' says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. ``That's what we saw in the chamber.''

If the pervading spirit in the House chamber was not conducive to bipartisanship, neither was the reaction that followed. Most Republicans have gone out of their way to praise the speech as an evidence of the President's new willingness to be flexible with the Democrat-controlled 100th Congress.

``I think he tried to meet the Democrats halfway on trade, on the budget, [and] by floating the proposal on catastrophic health insurance,'' says Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah.

But Democrats see the address as vintage Reagan. From listening to it, said Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, ``you might have thought the Republicans had just won big.'' Adds House majority leader Thomas Foley (D) of Washington: ``He missed an opportunity to forge a commonality of purpose and effort between the White House and Congress.''

That kind of talk alarms a few Republican strategists, who thought President Reagan's positions on the budget, welfare reform, and on trade would strike a chord among Democrats.

``The State of the Union [address] deals in generalities to begin with, so we knew that a lot of Democrats would want to wait and see specific White House proposals before passing judgment on what are essentially trial balloons,'' says one Senate Republican aide. ``But we expected a better reception than that.''

The President's promise to introduce legislation to protect elderly people from the costs of catastrophic illness stands the best chance of bipartisan passage through the 100th Congress. But the Democrats, mindful of internal divisions within the administration over a plan fashioned by Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen, already are close to fashioning their own bill.

``They're going to take the Bowen bill and try to ram it down the administration's throat,'' says Senator Hatch. ``Maybe that's OK; there are some good things about it.''

But judging from the reaction to Tuesday's address, prospects for cooperation go downhill from the insurance proposal. Republicans believe Reagan extended an olive branch on the contentious issue of the trade deficit: He spoke of ``fair'' trade, a phrase used frequently by Democrats advocating strong corrective measures by the US to reduce its trade deficit. And he said the US must not be a nation of trading ``patsies.''

Some observers took that to mean that the President had softened, or dropped, his longstanding opposition to a trade bill.

Many Democrats, however, remain unimpressed. ``He used our words,'' Representative Coelho admits. But, says Rep. Leon Panetta (D) of California, ``What does he mean by them? He talks about fair trade, and what is his solution? Opening the border with Canada.''

Democrats profess to be unimpressed with virtually every other aspect of the President's speech. For example, his pledge to work with Congress to reduce the budget deficit was greeted eagerly by Republicans. But his plea for reform of the budget process and a line-item veto fell on deaf ears on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Reagan's statement in support of a balanced-budget amendment was greeted with derisive laughter from some Democrats.

Republicans seemed to be cheered by Reagan's statement that the Iran affair was his ``one major regret.''

Democrats, almost unanimously, profess to be dissatisfied. ``I think he still has to go some distance to regain the confidence of the people,'' Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia says.

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