White House timetable: 'five or six months' to pass Reagan budget

Now that Congress has President Reagan's economic program, the focus in Washington has shifted from the White House to Capitol Hill. The White House, however, has no intention of taking its eye off its plan. "You won't see the President leaving this hemisphere until the economic package gets through Congress this summer," says one White House source.

There will be no distractions of a European or Soviet summit until then. One White House worry is that Reagan's early momentum in public support for the plan will dissipate with any Capitol Hill delay. Five or six months at most is all the time some advisers think he has to finish the job.

Already Congress's budget expert, Alice Rivlin, has warned that the Reagan plan could lead to higher inflation, higher interest rates, higher unemployment, and deeper deficits if the administration's economic formula does not work. The Congressional Budget Office will release on March 23 its evaluation of the Reagan package's impact.

Mid-to-late July has become the agreed-upon timetable for Congress to pass next year's budget, which takes effect in October. Before the August recess, the President's tax plan also should be passed, though its form is likely to be altered.

To do this, Congress will be moving on a number of "tracks" at once. Many processes -- recisions and deferrals, proposed legislation, reconciliation bills for 1981 and 1982, appropriations and continuing resolutions, 1982 budget resolutions, authorizing legislation -- must be juggled, say budget officials at the Capitol.

Big chunks of the cuts will be handled by a "reconciliation" device provided in the 1974 Budget Act. In effect, the Senate and House will instruct their respective committee chairmen on how much their committees must cut, in an overall figure, from the programs under their jurisdiction. The Republican-controlled Senate will try to set the pace, getting its "resolution of instructions" to the floor for debate and a vote by the end of March.

The crucial votes on the spending bills in both houses will come in June. Then, after House and Senate leaders confer to resolve differences, the final votes would come in July -- or as "an outside minimally acceptable date, just before August recess," Senate sources say.

A number of situations could interrupt this swift timetable, congressional experts say. The program could get into trouble if the economy worsened or, on closer scrutiny of its effects, the public does not approve of how the program would affect them. Or a foreign affairs incident could divert attention from the congressional scene.

One potential hitch could come with the tax part of the President's package. The House -- where tax bills must originate -- insists action on taxes must follow action on the spending cuts. Attempts to separate the President's three-year cut into a one-year version could prompt a White House veto, either intimidating or angering Democratic congressmen.

"Much of what gets included in the reconciliation package will likely be negotiated in a House-Senate conference," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional affairs expert. "If the House does get around to a reconciliation bill -- maybe not until mid-June, if all the details are there in a timely enough fashion -- it's going to be a different package than the Senate's."

At least a third of what Mr. Reagan wants in budget cuts will not be included in the reconciliation package, but will have to be handled in another fashion, Mr. Ornstein says. Programs such as medicaid, where billion- dollar cuts are proposed, might require computer projections of impact that simply will take longer than the fast-track reconciliation route would permit.

The dynamic of delay is of top concern to the White House and congressional leaders.

"The public support is already there to put through these changes," says one White House official. "The important political question is whether public support will be there in five or six months."

Public support for food stamp cuts, for example, might shift if the public thinks they will hurt the wrong people.

Ornstein says: "'Hey,' they'll say, 'This isn't what we wanted. We wanted to take away from cheaters, not from poor little ladies at the margin.'"

The Reagan administration's public opinion expert, Richard Wirthlin, says half the public thinks it may take two or three years for significant gains against inflation to emerge. Recent cautioning from President Reagan that the program might take time is part of a deliberate attempt by the White House to gain the breathing space that a longer time frame would provide.

"It's true that the longer a budget cut takes to be considered or passed, the less likely it is to pass," Ornstein says. "The more time goes by, the more groups mobilize, the more people realize the effects of program changes on themselves or their neighbors, and the more difficult it is to get action."

Already, the public thinks the Reagan program "is not fair," observes pollster I. A. Lewis. A majority thinks the proposals favor upper-income Americans over low-income Americans, according to a recent NBC national poll.

Defense spending and the El Salvador issue could also jar what might be an otherwise easy journey through Congress for the President's package.

"There's going to be mounting pressure for more cuts in defense," Ornstein says. "There's a widespread perception there's tremendous waste in the defense budget."

Already, the President's tax plan is somewhat distracting attention from the budget cut, Ornstein says. The possibility of an international crisis could shift the much-needed focus in Congress to other matters.

He adds that if the situation in El Salvador dominates the news, "the people in Congress will have an umbrella to protect them from public attention, and Reagan' s ability to rally the public will weaken."

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