In the afterglow of President Reagan's upbeat and inspirational State of the Union address to Congress, the lawmakers are acting a bit like hosts of a successful dinner party who now must face the dirty dishes. Both Democrats and Republicans complained that while Mr. Reagan struck popular chords Wednesday night, he offered Congress little help in preparing the public for harsh cuts needed to reduce federal deficits.
Within hours of the address, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts resumed his role as chief Reagan critic for the first time this year. The white-haired Speaker called the President ``an old man that has captured the imagination of the public'' but who declined to level with Americans about the economy and the skyrocketing federal debt.
``I think it's time for Americans . . . to open their eyes and say, `Listen, Mr. President, let's stop talking about generalities,' '' O'Neill told reporters Thursday. ``He hasn't been honest with the American public. They haven't asked him for honesty.''
The Speaker argued that the ``day of reckoning has come'' on federal red ink.
In a much lower-keyed response, Senate majority leader Robert Dole said he was ``disappointed'' that the President gave the deficit little attention in the speech. He told a meeting of bankers: ``I frankly wished we'd had a little more time spent on the deficit.''
But the Kansas Republican continued, ``When you've got something you're not particularly proud of, you don't raise that as the centerpiece of your speech.''
Instead, the centerpiece was tax simplification, a theme that Mr. Reagan stressed so strongly that many on Capitol Hill are now convinced that he will prevail either this year or next on that issue. ``People were waiting for him to say'' he would pursue tax reform, said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico.
The Senate Budget Committee chairman was among those who opined that Reagan ``could have pushed harder'' on deficits.
But Republican House whip Trent Lott of Mississippi argued that moving equally fast on both deficits and tax reform could be politically savvy, since ``if we only talk about cuts'' in federal spending, the message would be all negative.
``Tax reform has a lot of appeal,'' Lott said.
``This could go a long way to making a mark'' in history for Reagan and for the Republicans, Representative Lott said. ``It's an issue that Democrats should have taken a long time ago. They didn't, so we're going to run away with it.''
Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, a Democrat who began urging a simplified tax code before the Reagan administration, said he was ``very pleased'' to see the President give such a high priority to the cause. He predicted that tax reform would have bipartisan support and that both parties could reap political credit.
Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is of the opinion that the President is deeply committed to tax reform. ``He's talked just like this in leadership meetings,'' he said, adding that if the President follows through, he will attain 80 percent of the goal of eliminating most tax deductions and lowering tax rates.
In other specifics, the President may have more difficulties. Members of Congress are still determined to take some swipes at his defense budget, and members saw no possibility of passing the so-called ``social agenda,'' which ranges from banning abortion and legalizing organized school prayer to tax credits for private school tuition. Farm-state lawmakers said Reagan could not toss agriculture into a nonsubsidized ``free market,'' as he proposed in his speech, without some transition.
Despite the ability of lawmakers to block many Reagan initiatives, the Democratic Party continued to reveal its own bafflement at how to deal with the popular GOP President. A televised party response revealed a Democratic Party stung by its ``resounding defeat'' at the hands of Reagan last November.
``Our objective tonight is not to disagree with the President or his party,'' said Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, in a film that featured young Democrats who deserted the party to vote Republican.
But the party's top elected official, Tip O'Neill, showed little of the self-doubt his party is experiencing as he unloaded a broadside on the White House and outlined his party's strategy.
During the next weeks, he said, the Democrats will attempt to take home to Americans the unpleasant realities of Reagan cuts by a series of budget hearings around the nation.
``I want them to know about his program,'' said O'Neill. But even the feisty Speaker had to cede some ground to Reagan. He said he would help the President cut some federal programs.