US budget debate gets partisan

Like the weather, which has brought unseasonable gusts of sleet and rain to Washington's cherry blossom season, the political climate on Capitol Hill has turned chilly as Congress begins its annual budgetmaking ritual. A partisan free-for-all is expected on the floor of the House of Representatives today as lawmakers debate a federal spending plan for fiscal 1988 that would raise $22 billion in new taxes and fees, save nearly $9 billion on domestic programs, and sharply curtail President Reagan's military buildup.

The overwhelming Democratic majority in the House will likely pass the budget plan on a party-line vote sometime during the day. ``I've been around here 27 years, and I've never seen such a railroad job,'' complains Rep. Delbert Latta of Ohio, the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee.

Things have not been much more harmonious on the other side of the Capitol, where Senate Budget Committee Democrats, led by committee chairman Lawton Chiles of Florida, have been trying to hammer out a spending plan similar to the one before the House.

Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia says the budget plan will go to the full Senate for approval after Congress returns, April 20, from its Easter recess. That is when real trouble could begin. As things stand, the Senate committee's budget would lop roughly $37 billion from the deficit - about $20 billion short of the amount required to hit the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law's fiscal 1988 deficit target of $108 billion. Under the law, 60 senators must vote to waive the deficit target, and that attempt could precipitate a bitter fight on the Senate floor.

Eventually, a House-Senate conference committee will have to forge a compromise out of the budget resolutions passed by the two chambers. Here, interchamber disputes could flare under deficit-reducing pressures. Here, too, the politics of this year's budget might become especially labyrinthine.

Both sides, for example, may walk into negotiations assuming different rates of growth, inflation, and interest and other economic factors in the next fiscal year. The difference is critical because the economic and technical assumptions employed in the budget proposals greatly affect the size of the estimated budget deficit. If spending bills crafted from Congress's budget plan result in a deficit that is too large, the Gramm-Rudman law mandates across-the-board program cuts to bring the deficit into line.

The Democratic leadership in the House is deliberately tempting fate - and hoping to tempt Ronald Reagan - by adopting economic assumptions employed earlier this year by the White House in its budget proposal. The result is a budget plan that, by the reckoning of the White House Office of Management and Budget, hits $108 billion. But the Congressional Budget Office reckons it at $132.5 billion.

In August, when formal calculations are made of the deficit resulting from the budget proposal, lawmakers may be faced with the unsavory task of finding $20 billion in savings in the domestic and military budget. But Democratic leaders in the House are banking on the prospect that President Reagan will blanch when he is forced to choose between an absolute freeze in defense spending, a tax increase to save the defense buildup, and accusations from Democrats that he has walked away from deficit reduction.

To prod the President toward negotiations with them on taxes and spending matters, House Democratic leaders have tentatively decided to try to attach some sort of automatic budget-cutting mechanism to the Gramm-Rudman law. At the same time, they have temporarily abandoned talk of changing the Gramm-Rudman targets. Democrats and Republicans still insist that next year's deficit goal of $108 billion is unattainable, but House leaders want Reagan to admit to this before they talk any further of raising the targets.

``Why should we play into the President's hands,'' asks House majority whip Tony Coelho (D) of California.

Both the House and Senate may also propose sweeping reforms in a congressional budgetmaking process. But problems could arise if the Senate proposes reforms in the way the House calculates federal spending levels. Some on the House side suspect that the Senate may use such process-reform proposals as bargaining chips to be negotiated away in exchange for concessions on spending priorities from the House.

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