Reagan economics: top Senate priority

President Reagan and Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. have agreed on a strategy for moving the Reagan economic package forward in the upper house of Congress:

All controversial social issues will be postponed until next year, making room for full, all-out focus on Mr. Reagan's economic proposals this year.

"Oct. 1 is our target," Senator Baker told a group of reporters over breakfast March 26. "I want this to be Ronald Reagan year -- and then get on to other issues next year."

The Republican senator from Tennessee has reported to Reagan that this will be his operating plan, and he says "the President thanked me, saying he appreciated the dispatch with which we were dealing with his priority program."

Putting the Reagan budget and tax proposals first means that such controversial bills as those relating to abortion, prayer in schools, tax credits for parents with children in private schools, busing, and a number of other issues will not be taken up in the Senate this year.

One piece of social legislation, a bill strengthening the fair-housing law, will be dealt with this year, the senator says, "because I committed myself last year to so doing. But I think we can deal with that issue without taking much away from the full focus we will be giving to the economic package." He said he felt sure the legislation would be approved.

Of his ability to make his priorities stick, Senator Baker, referring to both Republican and Democratic colleagues, said: "I have good suport for this."

The Baker-Reagan agenda contains these implications:

* The two leaders seem to be sending out a message that the Reagan administration is not about to be sidetracked by anything from its single-minded intention to push its economic program through.

They are also saying that they are not going to scatter their fire -- a la President Carter -- by putting too much on their legislative-proposal plate all at one time.

* Republicans are convinced they can win public support and improve their position in Congress by giving all-out backing to measures aimed at improving the economy.

Senator Baker says he sees Republicans improving their numbers in the Senate in 1982 by at least three or four -- "even if the economy outlook remains murky."

He says that if the Reagan intiatives are adopted and the economy takes a decided leap upward, he foresees the possibility of Republicans gaining more seats in the Senate and even taking over the House of Representatives.

"I predict unqualifiedly," said Baker, "that the Republicans will take over the House by 1984."

* There is also a message, it would seem, to conservative GOP ideologues -- that they will have to wait quite a bit before this administration will be able to get around to some of their favourite programs, particularly those that would cut back on abortion practices, allow prayer in schools, and give assistance to parochial schools.

Will the conservatives be willing to wait?

Senator Baker indicated he thought his conservative colleagues were in agreement with his plan for scheduling. He said that there might be efforts by some senators to attach one or more of these controversial measures to an appropriations bill as amendments, but that he really thought such action could be discouraged.

* Finally, there is this message to Democrats, particularly liberal Democrats who favor liberal social programs, that the President and the Senate majority leader are clearly walking arm in arm toward the single goal of putting through economic measures that entail deep slashes in New Deal and Great Society programs.

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