Partisan sparring puts budget negotiations on a political roller coaster
Washington — No one said it would be easy to raise taxes, cut defense plans, and lower social security raises during an election year. And Congress is proving just how difficult it is.
Negotiations on the federal budget rode a roller coaster of high hopes and deep pessimism this week, with party loyalties at the controls. As of this writing, the two sides show few signs of coming together. Despite giving lip service to grave economic problems, they have so far failed to put aside their political disputes.
House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts has effectively doused Republican optimism surrounding President Reagan's recent vow to go the ''extra mile'' on the budget. The Massachusetts Democrat told reporters April 21 that the President would ''walk a mile -- for a camera.'' The next day he dismissed as a ''ploy'' the views expressed by Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee that the budget talks have made progress.
Rep. Tony Coelho of California, one of the most partisan of Democrats and chairman of the House Democratic campaign committee, charges that the White House reports of progress on budget talks are ''hype'' designed for the news media.
Republican House members, meanwhile, expressed concerns that the Democrats will not negotiate in good faith. An aide to Republican House leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois called his boss one of the most optimistic in his party over the fate of negotiations. ''And he's not very optimistic,'' said the aide shortly before the last scheduled negotiating session was to begin April 22. Even if the two sides reach agreement, Mr. Michel is worried that Speaker O'Neill will torpedo it, said the aide.
About all that the negotiators have firmly decided so far is what will happen if they fail to agree: The federal deficit would be a staggering $175 billion in 1983 and even higher the next two years. But how to cut that figure by as much as half still eludes the Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.
The major sticking point continues to be Uncle Sam's biggest and most sensitive spending program, federal pensions, including social security. Automatic pay increases, based on inflation rates, send the pension costs up by almost $20 billion a year. Many budget experts and lawmakers argue that it would be impossible to control federal spending without first getting a handle on pensions.
But no issue is more politically volatile, as President Reagan discovered when he made a proposal last year for major cutbacks in social security. He was immediately and firmly rebuked by Congress.
No party wants to step forward on a social security change now unless the leaders of the other party agree to step too. That way neither side could attack the other during next fall's congressional elections.
Each side is trying to coax the other to take the lead, but so far the result has been a standstill. President Reagan has rejected any social security change, and the Speaker of the House says he will oppose any changes in social security benefits, even if the negotiating teams agree to them.
Another major dispute surrounds tax increases. Republicans are trying to save the three-year Kemp-Roth income tax breaks passed last year, while Democrats want to revoke the tax cut, which they brand as welfare for the wealthy.