Congress's deficit-cutting zeal cools. Domenici tries to stir new budget-trimming debate
Washington — Sen. Pete V. Domenici, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, this week will try to jump-start the stalled effort to reduce the federal deficit. Impatient after two months of fruitless meetings on the deficit with Senate GOP colleagues, the New Mexico Republican is calling his committee together with a grim determination to pass a budget -- even one ``we don't like,'' he said in an interview.
Senator Domenici said he wants to ``let the debate start'' in public and, perhaps more important, ``let the White House get involved.''
The senator, said ``the whole country's saying, `Let's reduce the deficit.' '' He added that he will stick to his goal of cutting $64 billion from the 1986 budget, although he opens the budget-drafting sessions with no agreed-on plan even among Republicans. About the only consensus is that President Reagan's defense proposal must take a big cut.
Moreover, the Senate budget panel begins work at a time when much of the zeal has gone out of the campaign to reduce deficits.
After weeks of talk about reducing red ink (the first major test of the austerity mood in Congress), both houses voted emergency credit aid for farmers. Although the measure is almost certain to be vetoed, the action changed the atmosphere of the Congress.
``It's probably not the best signal for anyone looking at us for deficit reduction,'' conceded Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas last week.
Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida, ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, traces a flagging interest in budget cutting in Washington to declining interest in the subject ``in the countryside.''
``I think it's the kind of thing that makes people throw up their hands,'' he says. ``Everyone was looking for a plan they could jump on,'' he says, but ``when they see what they have to do'' to reduce the deficit, the members ``blanch.''
Senator Chiles has concluded that even cutting $50 billion from federal spending that will total about $974 billion in 1986 ``can't be done.''
House speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., meanwhile, had been talking recently about the need to reduce deficits, even if it meant cutting some domestic programs. But the farm problem has allowed the Massachusetts representative to dust off some of his familiar Democratic lines about the government helping troubled segments of society.
Voters sent more Democrats to the House because ``they want Democrats in there for watchdogs,'' he said last week.
Asked if he meant guarding federal programs, he responded, ``Certainly.''
Programs ranging from aid to students to grants for local communities will not be reduced as much as the Reagan administration has proposed, says Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D) of California, a moderate.
``Right now most of the members, Republicans and Democrats, are saying to many of those constituencies, `Don't worry. We're there,' '' says the former member of the House Budget Committee.
Representative Panetta notes a change from earlier brave words about budget-cutting. The California Democrat says the problem is that ``there frankly is no sense of crisis about the deficit.''
The economy hums along, he says, and ``myths'' abound that there are ``easy answers'' for the deficit, such as fast economic growth or a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
Even business executives are beginning to advise privately that ``maybe you don't have to deal with deficits now,'' says the congressman.
Democrats blame President Reagan for painting a too-rosy picture of the economy. In Congress, ``you do things on two bases: either from statesmanship and leadership or . . . because of a crisis,'' says Panetta. ``There isn't any leadership.''
Members close to the budget in both parties argue that despite the obstacles, the need to reduce the deficit has grown even more urgent.
``I will not be able to invent words descriptive of the danger to this country if we don't do something,'' said Senator Domenici. ``I mean, we are playing with dynamite.''