The federal budget process, which this week reaches a crucial conference between the US Senate and House of Representatives, has moved perilously close to a political free-for-all.
Although the next elections are a year and a half away, much of official Washington appears already to have turned the calendar to 1984. Tensions between competing political interests almost immobilized the Senate last week as it worked on a budget resolution.
The White House and hard-line conservatives dug in behind ideological bunkers and refused to back any new taxes. Democrats insisted on more taxes as they pointed with what one colleague dubbed ''born again'' fervor at the dangers of budget deficits.
A group of determined GOP moderates joined the cry for more taxes, while others in their party were torn between loyalty to their leaders and concern over deficits.
After days of debate and repeated votes, no budget plan had a majority. And as the clock neared midnight last Thursday, the budget process itself seemed, like Cinderella's coach, about ready to turn into a pumpkin. Only a last-minute rescue by Senate leaders enabled the upper chamber to produce a budget resolution.
Majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee made a key motion to reconsider a bipartisan proposal. That signaled fellow Republicans that they could vote for the compromise, and enough did to pass it. As an aide explained, Mr. Baker preferred to pass a budget he disliked rather than none at all.
Political posturing will be the big obstacle as the two chambers try, beginning Wednesday, to agree on a fiscal plan for the year beginning next fall. They have written widely divergent budgets.
A highly partisan Democratic budget, passed earlier by the House, calls for $ 30 billion in new taxes for 1984, an increase of about 4 percent for defense, and about $24 billion more for domestic spending than President Reagan wants.
The Senate version, passed by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, provides a middle-of-the-road budget.It would raise taxes by only about $9 billion in 1984, by $13 billion in 1985, and by $51 billion in 1986. Defense spending would go up by 6 percent, and domestic spending would be $11 billion less than the House calls for.
Deficits in the two budgets are nearly the same for 1984, with the House projecting a shortfall of $174.5 billion, and the Senate $178.6 billion.
Sources on both sides of Capitol Hill are expecting the final budget to come close to the Senate on taxes. Even House Democrats see little chance of raising near the Senate figure.
Even more important than the numbers, however, will be the political signal that comes out of the House-Senate budget conference.
''It has to be perceived as a departure from Reaganomics,'' says Christopher Matthews, an aide to House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts. That means some restraint on defense and deficits and, most important to Democrats, enough domestic spending to fund their proposed long-range job programs.
While some in Congress are relieved that the budget process has lived to see another controversy, it still faces the threat of presidential vetoes of any major spending or taxing bills to enforce it.
President Reagan, who lobbied hard a year ago for his budget plan, has almost disengaged himself from the budget battle in recent weeks. He declined to give his blessing even to the Senate GOP leadership's proposal that came close to his own budget.
He said he would veto all tax hikes and ''any spending bills that would rekindle the fires of inflation and high interest rates.''
Sen. Slade Gorton, the Republican who sponsored the budget compromise, predicted that the President will change his mind once the White House staff has studied the ''entire package.'' The Washington senator told reporters last week, ''Congress and the President will make their peace.'' But he also conceded, ''I do not believe a presidential veto on a tax bill or spending bill will be overridden this year.''
Some Republicans see the presidential attack on the budget as the opening shot of a reelection campaign that makes Congress a central issue. ''Ronald Reagan does very well in confronting the Congress,'' says a GOP Senate aide close to the budget process. The aide added that had the President compromised and backed a budget, he could not veto the bills that the budget authorized.