The new Senate Republican leaders, who on a cold day last January vowed to make major cuts in the federal deficit, have now reached the final days of debate over their proposed 1986 budget. But the goal of subtracting at least $50 billion from the expected $227 billion deficit still looks far away.
The Republican-controlled Senate, which last week endorsed a budget package worked out by the GOP leaders and President Reagan, will this week almost certainly undo much of their own work.
Already the Senate has reshaped the GOP budget package by cutting more from defense and by restoring full cost-of-living adjustments for social security recipients.
This week the senators take up such issues as Amtrak subsidies, the Small Business Administration, and rural housing programs, all slated for extinction in the GOP budget. Members and aides are predicting that the Senate will preserve many of the programs on test votes.
But Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas held at week's end that he was not discouraged. ``I'd be surprised if the United States Senate didn't pass a substantial budget reduction'' plan, he said in an interview.
Dole's developing strategy is to permit his colleagues to run through the 50 hours of debate allowed on the federal budget so that they will then be forced to forge a new compromise at the 11th hour. That critical time would come on next Thursday, the majority leader figures.
``The circle is closing'' on the budget process, said Senator Dole, predicting that after Monday only 14 or 15 hours will remain to debate favorite programs.
Then, he predicted, the senators will reach an accord that includes:
Freezing all cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for one year for social security recipients and for all federal pensioners.
Providing increases only to match inflation for defense in 1986 and raising defense by 3 percent in real terms in both 1987 and '88. ``We'd like to improve that some,'' said Dole, adding that the ``liberal'' House of Representatives will probably chip away even more from the Pentagon.
Making many of the cuts in domestic programs proposed in the GOP-White House proposal.
The majority leader conceded that to make such a package he will need at least a few Democrats, since some GOP senators refuse to approve any change in social security. But he said last week that a few Democrats are already showing an interest.
Before any final Senate budget agreement, however, there will be a series of tough votes. Senators will be standing up to be counted on popular programs such as student aid and farm subsidies. They will even have to decide whether to sacrifice 10 percent of their own $75,100 salaries, as proposed last Friday by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina.
Taking the pay cut would make it easier to ask pensioners to accept a freeze, Dole said, in explaining why he voted for the Helms proposal, which failed in a 49-to-49 tie.
The North Carolinian plans to try again this week.
Democrats have been so divided on the budget that they have failed to produce their own package and have been content to allow Republicans to pick apart theirs.
Underlying the debates is the early arrival of campaign tensions, since 22 Republicans are up for reelection next year, and many are listed as highly vulnerable. For Democrats next year is their clearest shot in this decade for retaking the upper house.
Political strain was clear last week in the close vote to freeze defense at zero ``real growth.'' Only a year ago members were debating whether to permit a 5 percent defense growth.
Staunch conservatives from farm states, such as Sen. James Abdnor (R) of South Dakota, jumped off the Reagan ship when asked to back his request for 3 percent growth in 1986.
Senator Abdnor said it was the first time he had failed to back the Reagan administration on a major defense vote. The freshman senator is facing re-election next year.
Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, a supporter of freezing defense, said that Pentagon increases are ``a real problem'' for farm staters ``because of the growing frustrations in rural communities.''
Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa said the saying throughout the Midwest is: ``Take from arms; give to farms.''
``We made the full effort'' to win support for the President's request on defense, Dole said, but he added that the GOP holdouts were unmovable.
The majority leader also has the task of trying to steer the Senate away from any tax hike in the budget. Democrats and even some in the conservative ranks of Republicans are increasingly raising the issue of setting a ``minimum corporate tax'' to help underwrite the deficit despite resolute White House opposition.