When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy proclaimed this week that ``the budget process is in shambles'' and that ``Congress has too much power over the purse,'' frugality appeared to have conquered the last holdout. Even the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, who has been hinting at another presidential try, has joined the outcry against spending. His delivery was hurried and stiff, compared with his more passionate speeches in civil rights debates. But his message was clear as he urged his colleagues to give presidents the power to veto individual items in spending bills.
If the Kennedy stance shows the extent of the austerity mood, the vote that followed on the ``line-item veto'' showed that there will be no quick relief for the nation's budget deficit woes. Congress is not ready to surrender its authority in the name of budget-cutting.
Even calls from the convalescing President Reagan to senators failed Tuesday to provide the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster against the line-item veto. Another try to cut off debate yesterday was expected to end in the same fate.
The measure's chief sponsor, Sen. Mack Mattingly (R) of Georgia, conceded that the line-item veto is lost for now. He served notice that he will try to attach the line-item veto to future spending bills.
Ironically, one reason the Senate has time to spend on the apparently doomed line-item veto this week is that the 1986 budget proposal is not ready for action. House and Senate negotiators met yesterday at the White House to try to work out differences, but the talks have been deadlocked for most of the month.
Supporters of the line-item veto point to 43 states that give their governors such power. They charge that Congress has diluted a president's right to veto by passing gigantic spending bills that a president must either accept or reject as a whole.
A common practice is for Congress to add pet projects to big spending bills. For example, the supplemental appropriation measure now before Congress includes aid to rebels in Nicaragua, which President Reagan seeks, as well as money for water projects, which members of Congress want. If the President had veto power over individual projects, he could block those he opposed and still have the aid he wanted.
That power, however, would cut into jealously guarded constitutional turf. It is ``a nasty swamp that will serve as a breeding ground for lawsuits, confusion, and escalated confrontation,'' predicts the chief opponent of the plan, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He and other foes contend the line-item veto would hand presidents a powerful weapon to wield against lawmakers.
Foes point out that the line-item veto would probably have little effect on the deficit, since it would be applied only to domestic ``discretionary'' spending, which is less than 15 percent of the federal budget. It would also apply to defense spending, although Reagan has favored increased military spending.