President Reagan, who less than a year ago won a huge election mandate and who still soars in public opinion polls, now faces challenges on almost every front on Capitol Hill. His chosen issue, tax reform, is fast-fading. Action that he opposes, like South Africa sanctions and trade bills, are gaining.
``I don't think he's going to do very well this fall,'' said a top GOP aide.
Robert Dole of Kansas, majority leader of the Senate, has warned that the returning Congress would be ``feisty.'' As both houses get down to work this week, that prediction has already proved accurate. The Reagan administration and lawmakers in both parties seem to be marching along different paths:
On its first day back from summer recess, the GOP Senate is scheduled to take up the South Africa sanctions bill, while the Reagan administration works on a last-minute plan to forestall congressional action [See story below].
Leaders of both houses are predicting quick passage of trade legislation that would counter Reagan's free-trade policies. The President's announced action against four foreign trading partners ``will not be enough,'' said Dole yesterday on CBS-TV's ``Face the Nation'' [See story on Page 3].
White House officials, ensconced at Reagan's mountaintop ranch during the summer, spoke sternly about austerity in federal spending. Lawmakers spent much of their summer recess lending a sympathetic ear to farmers. With the farm-credit system near collapse and growers deep in debt, Congress is in no mood to make dramatic cuts in the farm program.
As a result, the Reagan administration, which has faced its last election, and lawmakers, who have a critical election next year, have very different viewpoints.
Senator Dole said Sunday that the President has been ``pretty well isolated'' but that members of Congress are ``out there with the voters, and we get a bit different reaction. They're after us.''
Accordingly, ``Tax reform sort of has to be at the end of the list,'' Dole told reporters last week as he reviewed the fall legislative agenda. The House Ways and Means Committee, meanwhile, has pushed back writing the tax-reform bill, while it focuses on the more popular issue of trade.
White House officials are now searching for ways to mollify Congress on trade and South Africa. When faced with an overwhelming sentiment on Capitol Hill, Mr. Reagan has in past years deftly struck compromises and then declared victories.
But such a defensive posture at this early point in the second Reagan term stands in sharp contrast with his activist leadership four years ago. The posture is also ironic considering the President's robust personal popularity.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters last week that ``President Reagan [is] in a stronger position than any other President beginning a second term since the end of World War II.'' He cited the President's 65 percent favorable rating in a recent Gallup poll and added that Reagan ``feels that we are dealing from a position of strength.''
The outlook for his legislative program is far less bright, however.
``People like him, obviously,'' said Dole in an interview. ``That doesn't always translate into action.''
One explanation is that Reagan has asked relatively little of Congress so far this term. ``The only big Reagan initiative out there is tax reform, and it's going to take a while to get there,'' Dole said. The second big effort, a summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in November, does not directly involve Congress.
Dole said he sees no problem with the modest Reagan wish list. President Eisenhower ``got along pretty well by not trying to do many things,'' he said.
The Senate leader, who has struck an independent course for the GOP Senate, said, ``We have a different agenda in some respects. Everyone around here is sort of a free spirit.''
With the 1986 elections nearing, members are increasingly sensitive to constituents' voices and less attuned to the White House. But the split has ``probably been overblown,'' said Dole last week as he attempted to smooth over differences.
He told reporters that ``I haven't heard anybody complain about Ronald Reagan'' and added of the GOP senators, ``We need the President's assistance in 1986.''
The Senate majority leader Sunday urged the President and his advisers to meet more often with members of Congress. ``We want to be on the same team, but we also want to be in on some of the decisions,'' he said, adding that those decisions will help determine whether the GOP holds the Senate majority in 1986.