Louder debt warnings
Washington — President Reagan won the votes of an overwhelming number of Americans with a campaign based on good times, no tax hikes, and growing out of the federal deficit, while leaving social security and defense spending untouched.
His fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill are now launching an intensive campaign to convince the President that, only a few months later, that it is a time for sacrifice on all fronts.
The outcome of that effort, more than the tugging between the parties, will determine the direction of the 99th Congress - a legislature certain to have its attention riveted on budget cutting and taxes.
The budget deficit is a ''clear and present danger'' to the country's prosperity, warned a solemn Senate Budget Committee chairman, Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, this week. Even ''inordinately high growth'' will not resolve the problem, he said.
One of the leading Senate conservatives, Sen. James A. McClure (R) of Idaho, has added his plea to the chorus.
Senator McClure's message at a Thursday breakfast was that ''although you won the election, Mr. President, with a massive mandate, and even though you and the American public think things are going pretty well, they are not going to stay pretty well unless something is done. And that requires presidential leadership.''
A staunch Reagan ally, Mr. McClure charged that the President ignored the looming economic problems during the campaign.
''He chose to go into the campaign saying, in effect, 'You've never had it so good. Don't let them take it away from you,' when he knew that immediately after the election he was going to have to come back and say things that are not that good,'' the senator said.
Moreover, McClure held that he was still ''not at all convinced'' that Mr. Reagan views the growth of social welfare programs as a great problem.
Some senators, including McClure and Domenici, say they are willing to take the politically dangerous moves of freezing programs across the board, including cost-of-living increases for social security, which the President has put off limits in his budget cutting. Newly elected Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas has made it clear that he wants defense increases put on the chopping block.
The President's proposed selected cutbacks - which include eliminating some domestic programs, while leaving defense and giant entitlements like social security unscathed - have won no cheerleaders in Congress. In some quarters the budget proposal is viewed as little more than an opening salvo, a legal formality, that will be rewritten entirely on Capitol Hill next spring. Some lawmakers hope the final version will have broader cuts.
''I think the American public will accept restraint if they think they're being treated fairly,'' McClure told reporters. He also said he would vote for increased taxes if they were tied to spending cuts.
Ironically, one of the big problems that Republicans have in pushing their views on the White House and the public is that there is no big problem visible in the economy. While some economic indicators have slipped recently, no crisis atmosphere exists.
''Usually not much happens barring a crisis,'' says Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist and congressional expert. But he says Republican senators, who have their majority at stake in the 1986 congressional elections, may provide the impetus.
''Because of the dilemma and nervousness of Senate Republicans, there is at least the possibiliy of dramatic action in '85,'' says Mr. Ornstein, as the GOP scrambles to avert economic disaster during the election year.
Also, the election of Senator Dole as the new majority leader is widely seen as making action on the deficit more possible. Not only has Dole made deficit reduction a top priority, but as Ornstein says, he might be willing to ''knock heads'' to produce legislation.
The chief burden for dealing with the economy will rest on the GOP, especially the Senate leaders. The Democratic House leadership has indicated it will be happy to leave the hot kitchen to the Republicans.
House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts has recently moderated the tone of anti-Reagan rhetoric. According to aide Christopher J. Matthews, the plan is to stand back and ''let the public know what the President has in mind'' before Democrats open their fire.
Democrats prefer to allow Reagan to lead the way if any unpopular action is needed.
''I think it would be very difficult for us to expect the Democrats . . . to bail the situation out for the President if he is going to lacerate us as big spenders and taxers,'' says House majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas.
''So long as Ronald Reagan is not out front asking for increases in revenue, it will be very difficult to get a majority of the House vote for them.''
Liberal Democrat David Obey of Wisconsin put it more bluntly: ''No Democrat in his right mind is going to vote for a tax increase till the cows come home.''
Do such sentiments point to inaction in the new Congress? ''I think it depends upon the facts,'' says Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D) of Missouri, the moderate who was elected this week as the new chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. If ''the economy starts to sour, I think you're going to see the deadlock broken,'' he says, but not otherwise.