Congress soft-pedals opposition

Republicans in Congress are cheering President Reagan's economic plan as the most dramatic in 50 years. Some Democrats are jumping on the Reagan budget wagon, too. And even liberal Democrats are soft-pedaling their opposition.

"It's the Reagan mystique," says a Senate Republican staff member. But as opposing Democrats see it, they are simply avoiding the spoiler image and responding to the dominant feeling throughout the nation that government is spending too much.

Says Sen. Alan Cranston of California, a liberal Democrat, "I'm willing to give Reagan his time at bat."

Both the Senate and the House will be thrashing over the President's "program for economic recovery" at least until next summer. What finally emerges may look different from his proposed $41.4 billion in budget cutbacks for 1982 and a tax break that would mount to 30 percent in three years. But Congress can be expected to go a long way in those directions.

"No one expects the full $41 billion cut," Rep. James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma told the Monitor after looking over the Reagan proposals. A strong supporter of budget restraint, he chairs the House Budget Committee, which will oversee the cuts.

The proposal is a "strategic move," said Congressman Jones, predicting that the administration will get half to three-quarters of the proposed spending cuts.

"You've got to have a target to shoot at," said Rep. Robert H. Michel of Illinois, House Republican leader. The President will find enough allies among conservative Democrats to pass his program, said Congressman Michel, although he seemed to concede that not every cut would be approved.

At the heart of the problem facing members of Congress is the demand to reduce federal spending on one hand and protect pet projects on the other.

Even staunch conservative Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina reportedly questioned possible cuts in rural electrification programs during one briefing on the President's plan.

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, met some of his problems face-to-face during a recent trip home. He casually mentioned a water project, and "the town erupted," reported an aide. A page-one story appeared in the local newspaper about the project being cut.

In the office of Budget Committee chairman Jones, letters are coming in expressing concerns about losing funds. But a staff assistant says that, more than ever before, constituents are writing that, as long as the cuts are across the board, they approve.

Like Jones, Senator Cranston forecasts that the President will win half or more of his budget reductions. Democrat Cranston credits the administration for a "genuine effort" to be fair in the cuts, which will hit airline and Amtrak passengers as well as food stamp recipients.

But Cranston disagrees that all of the needy will be spared, as promised by the President in a guaranteed "social safety net" of programs. "It depends on the definition of need," says the California senator. He cites the loss of some nutrition programs for children as hurting the needy and says that if aid is given only to the most destitute, some poor parents will be discouraged from taking jobs.

Despite their hesitance, Democrats have not formed a united front to combat the Reagan plans. A 12-member Democratic economic group in the Senate met for the first time this week, but its role is still undefined.

"If there's anything startling about the [Reagan] speech, it is that it is so pure," said Rep. James M. Shannon (D) of Massachusetts. "It was a Republican speech. It is the same one Reagan has been running on for 20 years."

Congressman Shannon, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee that will deal with the tax proposals, added that his party will offer little resistance, however. "The worst thing that could happen would be for the Democrats to be perceived as obstructionist," he said.

But many Democrats are warning they do not want to pare down taxes before the budget is reduced. And they plan to fight a pure "Kemp-Roth" tax plan, as proposed by the administration, which would give across-the-board breaks of 10 percent a year on personal income taxes.

Congressman Jones says that he wants the spending cuts to come first, tax breaks later.And further, he charges that the Kemp-Roth plan would add to inflation.

"There would be a large revenue loss, and [the tax savings] are not going to end up in investment," says Jones. "They are going to be in consumption."

He proposes more tax breaks for the middle class and for investment earnings such as capital gains.

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