Congress closes with budget accord]
Washington — As it departs for a month-long recess, the 99th Congress leaves a record of budget logjams, tough stands on national security, and an uneven start for President Reagan's second-term legislative program. More than any other thing, the long battle over the federal budget has made Congress look hamstrung and President Reagan indecisive.
House and Senate negotiators yesterday finally struck a long-sought compromise on a 1986 budget. The plan would cut $55 billion from the federal deficit next year, taking most of the cuts from defense and domestic programs including medicare, Amtrak, and rural housing.
The agreement which still faced House and Senate approval as of this writing, includes no new taxes and leaves social security benefits untouched.
``Nobody ought to kid themselves,'' said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. He called the budget plan ``a start.''
``It's not great,'' said Sen. Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida, ranking Democrat on the committee. ``It's certainly better than nothing.''
Despite yesterday's agreement, there was little celebration on Capitol Hill.
``The budget fiasco,'' says conservative Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R) of Illinois, ``has not added luster to anybody.''
Events this year contrast sharply with Mr. Reagan's first term, when he forged the budget into a powerful tool to reshape the federal government.
Republicans in Congress voted so uniformly for his program that many were dubbed ``Reagan robots.''
As he started his second term, the President turned his attention to other issues, such as tax reform, and the budget process floundered. Entering the debate late, the President twice switched positions on whether to restrain social security and touched off turmoil within his party.
The President looked ``unleaderlylike and vacillating,'' said Mr. Hyde, who, like fellow House Republicans, was happy to see the President ultimately uphold his campaign promise not to tamper with social security.
``The image of a strong leader able to assert himself and bring about change is teetering,'' says Sen Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, secretary of the Senate Republican conference.
House GOP whip Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi disputes that view. The President's ``agenda has been very clear all along,'' he says. ``The problem is the Congress.''
Senate Republicans, who proposed politically risky restraints in social security, only to have the President undercut them, will not listen to ``White House pleas on anything'' for a while, warned Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole early this week.
By week's end, however, Mr. Dole had softened his tone.
Hard feelings ``don't last around here,'' said Dole, ``We're obviously upset, but we'll be upset about other things later.'' The President's tax-reform plan will not be endangered, he said.
Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, points out that much of the ``painful negotiation'' over the budget issue will soon be forgotten and that the Reagan administration will have an opportunity to recoup.
But he says the President's program still has problems on Capitol Hill because his top priorities -- arms control and tax reform -- cannot be achieved quickly.
``You need an early victory to give you the momentum to get you through the down times,'' Mr. Ornstein says.
Moreover, Ornstein and members of Congress in both parties point to the changes at the White House, just as the new Congress began its work. The new chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, a former Wall Street executive, is widely seen as lacking the political savvy needed to keep smooth relations with Congress.
The President's recent surgery made him less active, but that has probably had little effect so far on legislation.
Despite the rocky start, the Reagan administration has won victories in this Congress, especially in national-security matters. Mr. Reagan has long saved his most passionate words for resisting communists in Central America. He has finally persuaded even the Democratic House to grant $27 million for aid to anti-Marxist ``contras'' in Nicaragua.
The House wrote a foreign-aid bill that included more aid for anticommunists fighting abroad than even the Reagan administration had requested.
When the Reagan administration put on a full-court press for military aid to the Philippines, it won approval for $70 million. The House had originally offered $25 million.
In some of these foreign-aid issues, the President had help from outside events. When Americans were hijacked aboard Flight 847 and marines were shot in an El Salvador caf'e, the House toughened its defense stance.
When Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega traveled to Moscow just after the House denied aid to contra forces in his country, the Democrats were furious. Within weeks, they reversed themselves and granted the contra aid.
Meanwhile, Congress continued to back the Reagan weapons buildup. Democrats, still smarting from charges that they are soft on defense, went along for the most part.
The administration won release of money to build MX missiles, after a massive lobbying effort early in the year. But later the President settled for a 50-missile limit, instead of 100.
A defense bill now pending in the House would give the Pentagon nearly every weapon system it sought, including chemical weapons. The President's Strategic Defense Initiative, once derided as ``star wars,'' won broad support on Capitol Hill.
At the same time, the Reagan administration lost credibility on defense spending. Stories of $400 hammers and of defense contractors charging the Pentagon for dog kennel bills put the brakes on defense increaes.
After seeking a 5.9 percent after-inflation increase, the Reagan administration finally settled for a defense spending increase only to match inflation.
``The administration has lost face on defense spending,'' says Senator Cochran.
The Mississippi senator, reviewing the last six months, says the President has given ``few specific'' bills to Congress.
But recalling the 1984 presidential campaign, he says, ``Look at his promises, and they were very few: Keep the economy growing, resist communism, no taxes. That's about all.''