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Reagan, Congress may bump heads on debt ceiling

One month after the deadline for posting federal income tax returns, President Reagan may have to ask Congress to raise the nation's debt ceiling.

The two activities serve as poignant reminders of the difficulties the White House and Congress are encountering as they try to close the gap between what the government is spending and what it's taking in.

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Under current law, Congress has until May 15 to conclude the first stage of the budget process. Short of that, Congress would be forced to raise the debt ceiling - currently $1.08 trillion dollars - to keep the government running.

Raising the debt ceiling is normally a veto-proof formality that enables the country to pay its debts. But it also can be made a vehicle for legislative ''riders'' - measures tacked on to the bill that calls for an increased debt ceiling. This would force the President's hand: He must accept the proposal or veto the whole bill, which would threaten the government with chaos.

The problem at present is the deadlock between the White House and Capitol Hill over Mr. Reagan's $757 billion fiscal 1983 budget. He is holding fast to his three-year tax cut plan and increases in defense spending. The Office of Management and Budget forecasts a $96.4 billion deficit; congressional experts say the deficit will be substantially higher.

''Time is running out,'' says Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, Senate Finance Committee chairman. ''Economic conditions demand swift action. We cannot afford to postpone a decision until after the scheduled congressional Easter recess.'' This would put Senate action ''no later than May 1.''

Frantic efforts are under way to get the matter off dead center, but so far they've been unsuccessful.

Rep. James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Budget Committee, argues that responsibility rests with the White House and with the Republicans who control the Senate.

Anxiety seems to be deepening among GOP leaders, who have not received what they regard as adequate concessions from the White House to cut budget expenditures.

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President Reagan's position is that the economy is improving, that forthcoming cuts in taxes will restore prosperity, and that he will not accept major cuts in defense.

Senate Republican leaders sent the White House alternate proposals that would cut the deficit by freezing the inflation adjustment for social security. A White House spokesman shot down this idea.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska says his party is ''prepared to consider a whole range of tax options,'' including a boost in gasoline taxes. So far, however, the impasse with the White House continues.

Congress passed the Budget Act of 1974 - supposed to end such problems - and it has been changed since. In most democracies, the prime minister presents a budget that is accepted short of a vote of confidence and national election. Under divided powers in the United States, the President presents a tentative budget, subject to change in committees in the House, in the Senate, and finally to reconciliation between both houses and the White House. Until 1974, 13 House committees acted individually on the budget without adding up their various proposals or looking at the outcome as a whole.

The budget stalemate is one of the most complicated in history. Some think the whole system will be reorganized. There is a parallel drive to write a requirement for a balanced budget into the US Constitution.

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