Political agenda slips from Reagan's control as new issues push to fore
Washington — Washington's agenda is shifting. The budget, driving force in this town's power game during President Reagan's first two years, has gone into eclipse.
The nuclear freeze movement and the EPA controversy, with its whiff of political scandal in toxic cleanup decisions, have moved to the fore.
The President inveighs against Soviet communism as ''the focus of evil in the modern world,'' calling on conservative US church leaders to back his arms position in the context of ''the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil.''
Despite evidence that Americans as a whole have not budged from their disagreement with his positions on such issues as abortion and sex education, Mr. Reagan revived these conservative themes in his address Tuesday to the National Association of Evangelicals.
In the White House itself, the chronic jockeying for power between conservative and moderate staff members has flared up again, with a bid to make Lyn Nofziger, crusty former Reagan spokesman, the White House director of communications, the top presidential image-guarding post. Mr. Nofziger represents the conservative wing of the GOP.
Behind all of this are some fundamental shifts in Washington's priorities, as the dynamics of East-West arms talks, the onset of the 1984 political campaign, and the ideological struggle within the Republican Party all bear down at once.
White House efforts to address all these concerns simultaneously can appear odd, if not confused. This is the price an administration pays when it begins to lose control of the capital's political agenda, Washington analysts say.
''We are seeing the customary skirmishes between the conservatives and moderate Republicans,'' says Charles Doran, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist.
''Curiously, the budget doesn't seem to be holding the Republicans' attention ,'' Mr. Doran says. ''This shows the weakness of the moderate voice in the party.'' Moderate Republican business leaders are upset that Senate GOP leaders have so far failed to make the basic changes in Reagan defense or tax policy they've demanded, he adds.
''Arms control clearly now is the central issue,'' Doran says. ''Initiatives have gone out - clearly (Chancellor Helmut) Kohl received assurances of this before the West German elections last weekend - suggesting there would be some moderation of the Reagan arms position.
''The President has to hit the freeze movement group hard now because he's going to yield soon and doesn't want to seem to be yielding to them.''
Within the administration, there is still debate over what direction a new US arms proposal should take. Reagan wants to hold as much conservative backing as he can to protect himself with the wing of the party that brought him to power.
''With the advent of the 1984 presidential campaign, foreign policy issues are being used more in the domestic arena,'' Doran says. ''The surprising thing is that economic factors are taking so much of a back seat. The moderates in the Republican Party are defused. In Congress they cannot take a concerted position on anything. The strength and power in the Republican Party is on the conservative side.''
''The clear ascendancy of GOP conservatives - won during Reagan's successful 1980 nomination drive and election, and just as evident today in his refusal to budge from his defense requests - would be threatened if he decides not to run again,'' Doran says.
Some Washington analysts see Reagan's reaffirmation of conservative values, both on arms and social issues, as signs he will run again. Others say, however, that these are his basic themes of the past two decades, which he is even more likely to trumpet should he not run again.
Meanwhile, the shift in Washington's agenda is just as evident on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. There, the Congress is taking its time not only with the budget, but with other major pieces of legislation.
''There's no urgency for activity in the Congress,'' observes Norman Ornstein , an American Enterprise Institute expert on Capitol Hill affairs.
Partly, the leisurely approach to the budget can be explained by the central role of the social security reform package this year. ''The freeze in other parts of Reagan's fiscal 1984 budget is based on freezing social security,'' Mr. Ornstein says. ''Without that, they must go back to scratch on the budget.''
The budget issue will be recharged the third week in March, when Democrats present an alternative economic program to the full House. Its revival, however, will be more political than legislative.
For the moment at least, Congress has lost interest in the big issues of the past two years. ''Not only the budget, but a dozen major pieces of legislation - clean water, clean air, immigration, bankruptcy - are awaiting action,'' says Ornstein. ''Nothing is happening with any urgency. The members just don't see any benefit in taking action these days.''
''The budget has been the driving force in Congress,'' says Ornstein. ''Psychologically, members would wait until the budget was taken care of before getting on with other matters.
''But the Washington agenda has shifted, for the time being at least, away from the budget. There's been a change in the Reagan presidency - it is no longer a revolutionary presidency. Washington is not worried about the possibility of having its world turned upside down. It's weathered the major changes. Even in the budget, the changes in programs now are small, at the margins.''