The federal budget, which has faced more near-disasters than the ``Perils of Pauline,'' has moved once again to the edge of oblivion. But it is far from certain that, as in the melodrama, anyone will come to the rescue.
White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan declared Thursday that the budget talks were ``teetering'' and urged business leaders to put pressure on Congress immediately. ``Forty-eight hours may be too late,'' he told the United States Chamber of Commerce.
Even the usually optimistic House Budget Committee chairman, William H. Gray III, has adopted a new tone.
``I'm beginning to wonder whether or not there's going to be a budget,'' the Pennsylvania Democrat told reporters Thursday.
The views come after a breakup of the House-Senate conference committee on Wednesday, after Republican senators called a temporary halt to talks.
``Everywhere I turn, it appears to me there's nowhere to go,'' said Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, dismissing the latest House budget-reduction plan as inadequate.
Despite the gloomy outlook in the capital, the budgetmakers on Capitol Hill have not yet surrendered. Veterans of budget battles have seen agreements struck after seemingly hopeless deadlocks. Last year Congress didn't enact the budget until Oct. 1.
Senate Republicans continue to smart over having voted for a one-year freeze on social security cost-of-living increases, only to see the President pull away from that position. They are threatening not to pass a budget unless the House agrees to dramatic cuts in programs in return.
``We're willing to try to get a budget, as long as it's real spending cuts,'' said Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole (R) of Kansas, adding that the Senate would not accept ``a lot of smoke and mirrors.''
Senator Dole said he doubted the budget conference would ``break down in a couple of days,'' however. He has made deficit reduction the centerpiece of his Senate leadership, a fact that may increase the likelihood that Congress will find an agreement.
Another factor is public expectation.
``What I think the American public wants is just simply [for us] to do our work,'' said Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, a member of the budget conference. She added in an interview that there was ``no way the people in Kansas'' knew or cared about the political infighting in Washington.
Congress is also under intense pressure to reduce the federal deficit simply because of the size of the numbers. The red ink has reached a level of $200 billion or more a year and is expected to continue at that rate unless Congress acts.
Even if the two houses fail to reach an agreement, they could still make some cuts. Both chambers have passed budget versions and could require that spending bills conform to those budgets. The result would probably be far less savings than the $50 billion promised.
``I think it's going to be very difficult for Congress as a whole to achieve'' the savings proposed, said House budget chairman Gray. ``Without a budget process, I don't think you're going to achieve that magnitude of savings.''
With no budget, it would be virtually impossible to enact permanent reforms proposed by the GOP Senate, including eliminating about a dozen federal programs. The battle over spending would move to congressional committees and would be fought program by program.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, assistant majority leader, told reporters at breakfast yesterday that lawmakers will rise in rebellion if there is no budget.