WHILE President Reagan was announcing his veto of an emergency farm-credit bill in the White House, the Republican-controlled Senate Budget Committee, on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, was busily adding another $6 billion to the President's $11.6 billion farm-spending request for the coming fiscal year. So much for the finality of a veto where farm-state politics is concerned. For the sake of farmers, and local businesses and banks dependent on the farm economy, we continue to think some credit assistance is necessary. The President said that only 4 percent of farmers were in credit trouble; but agricultural economists observe that in many states at least five times that number face bankruptcy.
Economics alone, however, have not governed the farm aid outcome in Washington this past week. President Reagan and his advisers wanted to plow a clear line around their budget priorities. The farm-credit veto, from his perspective, was a warning shot to Congress and to other interest groups that the President has not finished his mission to reduce government's interventionist role.
The Democratic-controlled House, satisfied it had left the onus for killing the bill on the President's desk, announced it would not attempt a veto override. It wanted to deprive the President of the kind of public victory on the House floor he achieved four years ago in his first major budget skirmish. Many of the young House Republicans, a more rambunctious group than their Senate counterparts, would have relished a chance to show up the House Democratic leadership and reinforce the President's image as able to win a showdown with Congress.
The Senate Republicans have other concerns. A majority of the 22 GOP senators up for reelection next year come from farm states. But not only is Senate control at stake. Among the Senate leaders are several with presidential ambitions. The senators want to show themselves as effective dealmakers. So the pressures in the Senate, among many of Mr. Reagan's GOP allies, are more toward pragmatic compromise than toward finishing the course toward government reduction set by a President who does not face reelection.
The conflicting GOP political agendas in Washington play against the public's own ambivalence toward budget-cutting. While the public approves of overall attempts to trim spending, it balks when cuts touch on specific programs that affect them.
Among the unknowns for the second Reagan term is what kind of counsel will come from the President's new staff members and what mediating role, if any, they will play. Early signs suggest they will encourage a more ideologically activist than politically accommodating style.
The federal deficits are proving very useful to the White House as an opportunity to take aim at programs like farm aid which offend its free-market values. The trouble with this is that not all Americans think that bullish reports about a strong dollar, ebbing inflation, and job growth describe the economic world they live in. Nearly 40 percent see unemployment as the country's greatest economic problem; a third cite the deficit.
Unlike four years ago, after Mr. Reagan's first major show of White House strength, the Senate Republicans did not crow this week when the President called the House's bluff and vetoed the farm bill. They quietly set about to minimize the political damage. The test of wills building in Washington is proving to be less between the White House and Democrats than within Republican ranks, with the Republican Senate moderates forced to become the capital's key dealmakers.