President Reagan may have hoped that Americans would give rousing support for his defense spending plans when Congress went home for Easter. But as Congress returns from the week-long break, it appears that the White House appeal hasn't persuaded the US heartland or the Senate.
Perhaps no one symbolizes this so much as Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a once reliable Reagan ally. He's a GOP member of the Senate Budget Committee, which begins writing a 1984 budget this week.
Senator Grassley, whose earlier years in Congress were marked by attacking waste in such programs as food stamps, has turned his energies on waste in the Pentagon. After voting for vast increases for the military, he's now calling for a change in the ''perception of fairness'' in budget cuts.
''At the grass roots all over America there's antagonism toward the fantastic budget increase'' in defense, says the Iowa Republican, just back from a tour of the western part of his state. From Red Oak to Cherokee to Fort Dodge, he says, the message from conservative Republicans was that ''there's tremendous waste in the Defense Department.''
The only answer, says Grassley, is ''shutting off the spigot'' to the Pentagon. While the President seeks a 10 percent after-inflation increase for defense, Grassley would hold defense spending even lower than the 4 percent growth voted by the House.
The Iowan's ''conversion experience'' came when he began probing the Pentagon's spending habits, and asked to interview Franklin C. Spinney, a Defense Department analyst who wrote an explosive study on cost overruns for high-technology weapons. When the Pentagon refused to allow the interview until Grassley and others insisted on a public hearing, Grassley's suspicions about waste were aroused.
''I've had a doggone difficult time getting information,'' he complains.
Not all of the Republicans on the Budget Committee have abandoned the President on defense, however. At least three have backed the full 10 percent increase. Among them, Sen. Steven D. Symms of Idaho has likened Reagan to Winston Churchill when he wanted to rearm England during the 1930s. Conservative GOP Sen. William L. Armstrong of Colorado, without stating how far he'll go on defense, said this week that Reagan's television address before Easter brought more support for his defense budget.
Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee predicted Wednesday that ''something will work out'' on the defense question. While he conceded splits in the GOP ranks, he said they are not serious.
''I believe the attitude is right'' for a compromise, he said. ''We will have a proposal that the White House and Senate can support.'' Senator Baker has predicted in the past that the full Senate would go as high as 7 percent for defense.
Reagan's strongest talking point in the budget debate, ironically, is the budget passed by the House just before the recess. While the President sought $ 244.7 billion for defense outlays in 1984, the House cut that amount to $235.4 billion. By some estimates, the House figure would allow only 2 to 3 percent in real growth. Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico says that rate is too low, and Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida, the ranking Budget Committee Democrat, also has criticized the House budget.
While Mr. Domenici and other moderates in the Senate have resisted the Reagan 10 percent request, they are now trying to nudge the upper chamber toward a higher defense boost to give it bargaining room with the House. Domenici has frequently said that his committee favors a 5 percent growth figure as a final result.
As the senators begin their postponed budget work, a new voice has joined the call for cutting defense spending. In a just-released book on the 1984 budget, the Brookings Institution calls for canceling the MX missile and the B-1 bomber as well as a number of the planned new submarines, cruisers, and battleships. The Washington think tank warns of the dangers of higher deficits caused by the defense buildup.