Congress and the federal debt: little action likely till '85

If both parties in Congress and members of the Reagan administration formed a circle and began assigning blame for the federal deficit, they would hardly have enough fingers for all the pointing.

In this capital the only agreement on the expected $207 billion federal budget shortfall is that it's too big. Conservatives blame decades of domestic spending. Democratic leaders point to the Reagan tax cuts and military spending. The Reagan adminstration blames Congress.

Many moderates spread the blame around evenly among tax cuts, the recession, the military buildup, and federal benefit programs.

But as the 98th Congress begins its last week of scheduled sessions this year , two facts are becoming as clear as the government's red ink. First, there is a growing uneasiness in the ranks on Capitol Hill about deficits. And, second, despite escalating rhetoric, little action is expected anytime soon.

''I don't think we're going to face it in a dramatic way till after the elections'' in 1984, says Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, a member of the Senate Budget Committee.

In virtually every poll, constituents voice support for balancing the budget, but to do so would mean cutting defense and benefit programs and raising taxes. It would also require making such unpopular moves just before an election, and just as the economy is recovering from recession.

''Voters have always identified with the deficit issue,'' says Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the GOP's Senate campaign committee. ''But if you ask in relative terms, voters are much more concerned about unemployment.''

As unemployment declines, so will future deficits, Senator Lugarsays. But he argues that even if deficits remain high, voters will not turn out Republican incumbents if job prospects look good.

Senator Kassebaum, who is up for reelection next year, says, ''A lot of voters I talked to in Kansas are concerned'' that the deficit will be a threat some day.

A broad range of economists warns that rising federal deficits will cause the government to soak up most of the available capital and force interest rates higher.

''It's like a dark cloud'' hanging over the economy, says Senator Kassebaum. Realtors in her state worry about interest rates, and the elderly fear the deficit could fuel inflation, she says, but the deficit is ''not something of immediate concern.''

One reason is that while Congress is resounding with speeches on reducing the deficit, ''nobody can decide where'' to begin, Mrs. Kassebaum says. ''It's always 'do it somewhere over there.' ''

Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert Dole (R) of Kansas has offered a bold plan to raise taxes and cut cost-of-living increases for federal benefits such as medicare and social security. President Reagan poured a bucket of water on the idea by announcing he would veto any tax increase. What little fire remained was doused by House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts. ''No way are going to cut senior citizens,'' the speaker told reporters last week. He summed up the deficit reduction efforts: ''As far a matters of the type , they are pretty well stalemated.''

The stalemate frustrates a growing number in Congress, from the most penny-pinching conservatives to a corps of liberal freshman Democrats. The odd assortment of right-and-left deficit fighters has already managed to shake up the routine on Capitol Hill.

About half the 52 Democratic freshmen took a symbolic stand against the stopgap funding bill that Congress had to pass to keep the government operating. To their surprise they provided enough votes to defeat it at least temporarily.

''I'd like to see some interest on the part of . . . whoever is leading us . . . that they are going to have to develop a plan to deal with the deficit, '' says California Rep. Jim Bates, one of the freshman Democratic rebels.

House Budget Committee chairman James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma also voted against the spending bill as a protest. ''Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are ignoring the deficit,'' he says.

After a long working Veteran's Day weekend, Congress passed a stripped down spending bill to keep the government in business.

But the battle over budget deficits is only beginning. More protests are expected this week as the Senate tries to pass a bill to raise the federal debt limit so that the government can borrow the cash to continue operating.

''Maybe it will reach a point where we have to appoint a super commission'' for cutting the deficit, Senator Kassebaum says. But not until 1985.

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