WHITE House budget chief James Miller walked over to the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel the other morning with a message for the reporters gathered there. The President, he said, was set to give the Democrats in Congress a good fight in the ensuing months. He said that Reagan's veto of the highway bill (narrowly overridden) was, indeed, a preview of what the President intends to do with any legislation calling for more domestic spending or additional taxes. Mr. Miller and other top Reagan aides now are picturing a President who, having survived the Iran-contra affair, is ready to stand up and fight again. Those close around him are portraying him as surprisingly ``up'' these days. Is this merely an act by a man trained to play a role? No, they insist. He's actively engaged again, they say, and eager not only to put the Iran-contra affair behind him but also to put his mark on his final months in office.
How will he do that? The Democrats think Reagan could make it at least part of the way back by being what they call ``cooperative.'' They didn't think he was at all cooperative on that highway bill. But they hope he now has learned his lesson. They think a ``reasonable'' President could - and should - now work with the Democratic-controlled Congress in shaping the budget and other pieces of major legislation.
But, as several influential Republican politicians are, in effect, putting it: ``It ain't going to happen.'' They see Reagan being Reagan to the end. And they are right. Reagan campaigned for governor, served as governor, ran for president, and has served as president with one simple, unswerving thesis: That government spending should be reduced.
That's the battle Reagan will continue to wage to the end. Cooperation? Well, at some point, Reagan has been known to take his feet ``out of the cement'' and find an accommodation. But it will be a compromise arrived at only after a long fight. This is not exactly what the Democrats mean by being cooperative.
Tony Coelho, the new Democratic whip in the House, came into breakfast the other morning sounding like a new man. Gone was the feisty, combative Coelho of days when he was the House's Democratic campaign head. There was now what could only be described as a ``sweet reasonableness'' about him. He spoke of Reagan in a complimentary way, acknowledging that the President remained powerful because of his sustained popularity.
Coelho went on to say that he envisioned a Democratic Congress now emerging as the major force in shaping the agenda of the nation for the remainder of Reagan's term. It just remained for Reagan, Coelho was indicating, to climb aboard this Democratic juggernaut. He said that if Reagan did this, there would be some residual credit for him and his administration for the legislative achievements that could ensue.
Dream on, Democrats.
Sen. George Mitchell, until recently head of the Senate Democratic campaign committee, was a little more realistic about Reagan's upcoming role when he, Mitchell, broke bread with that same reporters' group a few days later. No, he didn't see Congress providing the initiative for legislation simply because, as he saw it, no legislative body could do that. The driving force would have to come from the executive branch, he said.
Mitchell, too, has been known to use rather harsh words when describing the Republican opposition. But this time he was very kind when talking about the President. It is, indeed, the new Democratic position, or line: To do and say all that is possible to persuade what they see as an enfeebled President to buy the concept that the best - if not only - way for him to make a comeback is by helping the Democrats run the country.
But this President will be what he always has been: a battler. In the wake of Reagan's solo decision to go against all odds and seek to defeat the highway bill, Chief of Staff Howard Baker has laughingly pointed out the element that is so much a part of Reagan: His stubbornness.
Where will this lead? It could mean stalemate on any new legislation. But it also means that those Democrats hoping to get more money for domestic programs and at the same time to make big cuts in military spending are going to be in for a big fight from Mr. Reagan. Reagan will not have the clout he once had. But he still is President. He still can make life miserable for the Democrats. He still can work his will.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.