Democrats are trying to stop a Senate budget runaway. The Republican-dominated Senate Budget Committee in three extraordinary days this week slashed through social welfare programs that have evolved over a 40 -year period.
On March 19, it approved $36.4 billion in 1982 budget cuts, or $2.3 billion more than the President asked. Now they go to the full Senate. GOP senators are racing to give President Reagan's budget cuts to the Republican-controlled Senate before adversaries can regroup.
In the House of Representatives, veteran Rep. Henry S. Reuss (D) of Wisconsin , chairman of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, cried "Don't panic!" to fellow Democrats. The elements of a potentially historic legislative clash are appearing in which the Republican Senate will confront the Democratic House.
Representative Reuss is pushing an "al" ternative" Democratic budget, in which he matchs Mr. Reagan's proposed $52 billion program of added federal revenues by alternative levies that spare social welfare programs: higher alcohol taxes, higher tobacco taxes, a $10 billion increases in gasoline taxes, and other increases.
The battle is becoming a question of time. GOP senators on the Budget committee want to lay the program before the Senate by next week to speed up the inevitable clash with the House, and they talk about enacting the whole Reagan package this session.
Democratic spokesman Reuss, by contrast, forecasts that the process will take "longer than expected." He also foresees budget cuts of $30 billion to $35 billion, a 10 percent a year Kemp-Roth tax cut that won't pass, and a congressional process that will last "till late this year or possibly next year."
These developments fitted into the drama of what Congress does with the Reagan budget:
* The Republican-led Senate Budget Committee, like a scythe through grass, slashed $30 billion from proposed appropriations, many of them social welfare-Great Society projects. Some cuts went beyond the Reagan proposals.
* The House Ways and Means Committee in a preliminary move agreed to $8.8 billion in cuts in social programs, along with a $50.4 bill tax cut, about what Mr. Reagan urges. Action was unanimous.
* Spokesmen for welfare groups, through the Consumers Federation of America, told a House Agricultural Subcommittee that malnutrition might become a way of life in America if food stamp programs are curtailed.
* Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of tennessee postponed until next week an already twice-postponed Reagan proposal to cancel an April 1 increase in federal dairy price supports. The bill, the first major Senate test of the Reagan budget-cutting program, is opposed by Democrats and the dairy lobby.
Republicans seek action before assorted opponents organize. In one day the Senate Budget Committee cut $1.5 billion from the food stamp program; made proportionate cuts in the school lunch program; dropped a billion or more from welfare, medicaid, and assistance to workers who lose jobs from foreign imports; eligibility compared to only a few weeks in most jurisdictions now). Any one of these proposals normally would take months or years for Congress to consolidate.
There was some evidence that Democrats are coming out of their post-election shock at the unprecedented speed with which the White House presented its anti- inflation budget-reduction program.
Democrats on the Joint Economic Committee, Reuss recalled, produced a unanimous economic "alternative program" March 2, following the Reagan challenge.