WASHINGTON — NOW that President Clinton's new budget plan is public, Republicans ask a simple question: Would you rather reduce the $300 billion government deficit by raising taxes? Or by slashing government spending?
GOP leaders say the answer is obvious. Cut spending - deeply if necessary - and avoid Mr. Clinton's plan for higher taxes. That is the best way to keep the economic expansion moving, and put Americans back to work, they say.
"There are only three ways to get out of the deficit problem," says Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi. First, "you encourage growth to get out of it." Second, "you cut spending." Third, "you raise taxes. I prefer one and two, and only three when these other two have been totally explored and exploited."
Clinton's call for $246 billion in additional or higher taxes over the next four years has given the Republicans a rallying cry, and unified their ranks. It is also given them a new slogan.
Senator Lott says he is having new lapel pins made that declare, "It's spending, stupid!" - a takeoff on a humorous sign at Clinton's former campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., that said, "It's the economy, stupid!"
Despite growing national concern over the deficit, Republicans say most voters favor reduced federal spending, not new taxes on energy, business, and the wealthy, as outlined in the Clinton plan.
Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, the minority leader, says his telephone calls from home are running 17 to 1 against Clinton's economic strategy.
Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas says he took some of the phone calls pouring into his office this week, and the first was from an angry, 78-year-old man in Baytown, Texas. He objected to Clinton's plan to raise taxes on Social Security recipients with incomes over $25,000 a year.
Senator Gramm quoted the man as saying: "I never dreamed when the president was talking about [taxing] the wealthiest Americans that he was talking about Social Security beneficiaries who earn $25,000 a year. I think they feel pretty betrayed this morning." Spending freeze proposed
Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, accuses Clinton of taking the easiest path. It takes more courage to cut spending than to raise taxes, he says. In his speech to Congress, Clinton challenged Republicans to find a better way. Lott readily volunteered his own idea.
Noting that Clinton would impose one of the biggest tax increases in history, Lott says a far- better alternative, one popular in Mississippi, would be a freeze on all government spending. The immediate savings: $50 billion a year, enough to immediately shrink the deficit.
"Why can't we do that?" Lott asks. "We talk about shared sacrifice. How about that for shared sacrifice? We'd say to everybody that gets benefits from federal programs, we're not going to cut you, except for defense. We're just going to freeze you at what you got last year."
Though Clinton and the Democrats enjoy huge majorities in the House and Senate, Republican attitudes could still be crucial.
In the Senate, Democrats hold a 57 to 43 edge, but it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster. If Senate Republicans united to oppose Clinton, they could slow, or even block, some of the controversial parts of the president's program.
Though his address to Congress and the nation may rally some support, Republicans note that the president's popularity has recently slipped.
The newest Gallup poll finds Clinton with a 34 percent disapproval rating, the poorest showing of any modern president so early in his term.
Frank Newport, an analyst with Gallup, says the president was hurt by his decision to permit gays and lesbians to serve in the military, and by his outspoken support for abortion. Dr. Newport says by comparison, Ronald Reagan had a disapproval rating of only 13 percent at this time in his first term. GOP's supportive role
GOP officials are cautious, however, about attacking Clinton so soon. They say that everyone in Washington has a stake in the success or failure of the young administration.
Tony Blankley, an aide to Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, says if Clinton fails, and becomes, like George Bush, a one-term president, it could raise public cynicism to new highs.
If that happens, voters in 1996 might turn away from all professional politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, and embrace an outsider like Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire, he says.