More than United States military clout is at stake as President Reagan attempts this week to impose his 10 percent defense spending hike on Senate Republicans.
GOP senators also worry about their control of the Senate. The Republican Senate majority, the first since the early 1950s, has been the base of GOP power on Capitol Hill. It is also the wedge Reagan hopes will help him drive his defense program through a reluctant Congress. The White House reportedly offered to construe a saving from a smaller MX missile program as a budget cut. This would save only $2 billion in a $239 billion defense budget, however - or less than 1 percent.
But political soundings taken by both parties show that the Democrats are in a position to retake control of the Senate in 1984. The next few months are crucial. Leaders of both parties are recruiting challengers. The perception of whether '84 will be a GOP or Democratic year plays a big role in enticing top talent to abandon safe, lesser seats to run for the Senate.
And on defense, with the public swinging back from its 1980 rush to more arms for the US, a moderate range in arms spending now looks like the smartest political course to GOP leaders. That is why they are expected to resist Reagan's request to champion his arms budget on Capitol Hill.
Senate GOP leaders want to cut in half the defense increase Reagan seeks in the fiscal 1984 budget. Budget Committee pencil work on the spending plan is slated to begin today. House Democrats already have approved a 4 percent defense increase.
One of the key Republicans up for reelection next year is Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici of New Mexico. He narrowly won in 1978, despite heavily outspending his opponent. His New Mexico colleague, former Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R), was defeated by Democrat Jeff Bingaman last year. Black and Hispanic voters have rallied to the Democratic side in New Mexico. Senator Domenici could face any of several strong Democrats, including state party chairman Nick Franklin, US Rep. Bill Richardson, and former Gov. Bruce King.
Thus, observers say, political survival is forcing Senator Domenici to work for a centrist compromise on defense - rather than make himself a martyr for the Reagan budget.
Domenici may be the key man in the budget maneuvering. But he is far from the only endangered GOP senator running in 1984. A Monitor survey of the 33 Senate races shows the GOP trailing in four seats they now hold. They are barely even in three others. At least 14 of 19 GOP incumbent seats are rated within range of the Democrats.
By contrast, the Democrats are in trouble in none of their 14 seats up in 1984, and are rated as targetable in only two - in Delaware, where Republican Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV might run against Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., and in West Virginia, where Sen. Jennings Randolph is retiring.
If there was a New Right surge in 1980, it appears to be running in reverse for '84. On the Republican side, the senators most in trouble - Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Roger W. Jepsen of Iowa, and Gordon J. Humphrey of New Hampshire - are those most closely linked to extreme social conservatism.
cl11 Republican majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr.'s announced retirement has left his GOP seat vulnerable. US Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D), son of a former senator and congressman, is the likely Democratic nominee.
In Texas, Sen. John Tower faces challenges from at least a half dozen Democrats of stature, including Rep. Kent Hance and former Gov. Dolph Briscoe.
At least two additional GOP seats could suddenly become vulnerable, experts in both parties agree. If Oregon's Mark O. Hatfield decides to run again, his seat seems safe for the GOP. If he doesn't run, the seat is rated even at best. And in Idaho, if former Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus gets into the race for the Democrats, GOP Sen. James A. McClure's prospects would be downgraded to a tossup.
There is remarkable agreement in the two parties' views of 1984 Senate prospects. Party pros base their evaluations on survey data of candidate job performance ratings, demographic and political trends in the state, potential challenges, fund-raising ability, and so forth. This is an ongoing process.
In 1984, GOP moderate Charles H. Percy of Illinois could face a strong primary challenge from conservative US Rep. Tom Corcoran (R). Republican Gov. James R. Thompson barely survived a challenge from former Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III (D) last fall. Illinois, long a swing state, seems to be undergoing unusual political turmoil, as evidenced by the bitter Chicago mayoral fight to be decided April 12.
1984 Senate prospects
Ratings are by party professionals: 2 means strong for incumbent party, 1 means leaning to incumbent, 0 means even, -- 1 means likely loss.
Republican incumbents (19) Democratic incumbents (14) Dem. GOP Dem. GOP rating rating rating rating SOUTH SOUTH Baker, Tenn. -1.5 -1 Boren, Okla. 2 1.5 Cochran, Miss. 1 1 Heflin, Ala 2 1.5 Helms, N.C. -1 -1 Huddleston, Ky. 1.5 1.5 Thurmond, S.C. 1 1 Johnson, Iowa 1.5 1.5 Tower, Texas 0 0.5 Nunn, Ga. 2 2 Warner, Va. 0.5 1 Pryor, Ark. 2 1.5 Randolf, W. Va. 1 1 WEST WEST Armstrong, Colo. 1 1.5 Baucus, Mont. 1.5 1.5 Domenici,N.M. 1 1 Hatfield,Ore 1.5 1.5 Simpson, Wyo. 2 1.5 Stevens, Alaska 1 1 MIDWEST MIDWEST Boschwitz, Minn. 0.5 0.5 Exon, Neb. 2 1.5 Jepsen, Iowa -1 -0.5 Devin, Mich. 1.5 1.5 Kassebaum, Kan. 2 1 McClure, Idaho 1.5 1.5 Percy, Ill. 0.5 1 Pressler, S.D. 1.5 1 EAST Cohen, Maine 1 1.5 Biden, Del. 1 1 Humphrey, N.H. -1 0.5 Bradley, N.J. 2 2 Pell, R.I. 2 1.5 Tsongas, Mass. 2 2 Results: at least 14 GOP Senate seats targetable or leaning to Democrats. Only 2 Democratic seats in GOP range.