Can Congress avoid budget clash?

The current conferences between the President and Congress mask an underlying skepticism about the chances of eventual agreement on the new federal budget.

President Reagan went to Capitol Hill Tuesday to reassure members of Congress , who are as jittery about the politics of the budget as they are about the economy itself.

With elections looming, both parties want to avoid a siege of confrontation politics.

The 53 Senate Republicans the President sought to rally on his trip up Pennsylvania Avenue chiefly want him to appear ''reasonable'' -- to listen to their requests for a moderate contraction in his defense and tax cut programs to reduce the deficit.

''The President is willing to listen,'' says Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee. But after ''a free exchange of ideas'' at Tuesday's Senate luncheon session, Mr. Baker concluded, ''The President did not commit himself to a change in his budget.''

Hill Democrats are wary of Mr. Reagan for other reasons.

''The Democratic leadership is not interested in getting mouse-trapped by the President,'' says Rep. Donald J. Pease (D) of Ohio, a member of the Democratic whip organization. ''The Democrats would want substantial assurances Reagan would stay out of the way. The Democrats worry that if they agree to cuts in defense, plus tax measures, that the President would exploit it and run against the whole Congress.''

The danger, as seen from both sides of the aisle, is that the budget process in Congress could be politically stalemated for months, possibly even into the fall. The government could run without a new budget on a patchwork of continuing resolutions and appropriations. But that would make more difficult the task of controlling the federal deficit.

Politically, the overriding difference between this year and last is that Reagan looks less intimidating to the Hill leadership. The President is still personally popular, so the protocol of not attacking the President will be closely observed by the GOP and infractions within Republican ranks repudiated.

But public approval of Reagan's handling of the economy, and his overall job rating, have been dropping steadily for months. And polls indicate that Democrats have regained their edge with voters as the party more likely to assure peace and prosperity.

President Reagan holds the key to possible compromise, or he has the option to trump congressional initiatives with vetoes.

''It will be extremely difficult for the Congress to pass major revenue-raising measures over presidential opposition and subject itself to the political risk of being criticized as 'tax raisers,' '' says Otto Eckstein, chairman of Data Resources Inc. ''The budget outlook is indeed grim, unless the President shares in the leadership required to achieve more sensible results.''

''The Democrats really do feel they will be trapped by the President,'' says Allen Schick, University of Maryland expert on the budget process. ''They're particularly worried the President wants a comprehensive plan -- cuts in defense , a tax increase, increase in social spending. A comprehensive plan is one that can be shot down. The President then can blame them. It could very well be we will do without a budget process this year.''

Washington wants a clear signal from Reagan on whether he will ''listen to reason,'' as one of his moderate GOP supporters puts it, or dig in to achieve his government-shrinking agenda.

''There has been some very responsible leadership on the Hill on the budget, '' says Congress expert Thomas Mann, appraising efforts of GOP leaders to construct an alternative to Reagan's budget. ''So, on the one hand, bravo for the budget process.''

''On the other hand, the worry is that anything realistic that anyone can come up with is going to be distasteful because of the massive deficit it will involve - that a budget resolution, even crafted by the best of the congressional leaders will not attract a majority on Capitol Hill and therefore will not be able to pass,'' Mr. Mann says.

''It could be that the President will be more interested in political confrontation than in budgetary success,'' Mr. Schick says, ''that as his economic troubles deepen he will seek to pass the blame to Congress.''

Reagan's chief target all along may not have been the budget or deficit, but the role government has assumed in American life. Schick reasons: ''He would rather have a smaller government with a bigger deficit than a bigger government with a smaller deficit.''

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