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Ronnie and Rosty

NOW it's ``the Ronnie and Rosty show. I thought it was Rosty and Ronnie,'' Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski quipped the other morning. Ronald Reagan is out of the glitter of Hollywood, and Dan Rostenkowski has roots in the tough political world presided over by former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. They seem, at first glance, to have little in common.

Yet they were poor kids who struggled to the top, both leaning on the same ingredient: a particularly high degree of political savvy. They're working together, relatively speaking, to shape a tax-reform package that would put a mark of signal achievement on both their careers. When they talk about each other now, they use words of warmth and appreciation.

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Perhaps this togetherness won't hold. But for the moment, this unexpected show of bipartisanship between the President and the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is the prime topic of conversation in this politically oriented city.

Indeed, ``Rosty'' is the hottest article in Washington these days. Other than the President, who is always a center of reportorial interest, Rostenkowski is rated the ``best draw'' and the one with the ``best copy'' potential here, as viewed by the press.

Thus it was that nearly 40 members of the news media showed up for a breakfast with Rosty at what they were saying was an unprecedented early hour of 7 a.m.

Rostenkowski's stakes in success for the tax-reform effort may be even greater than the President's. Some expert watchers of the congressional scene are saying that he could come out of all this with so much glory that it might vault him into the speakership, which becomes vacant next year when Tip O'Neill retires.

At the moment the House majority Leader, Jim Wright, is the favorite to succeed O'Neill. But he is no longer a shoo-in. He is feeling the hot breath of a Chicago old-time ``pol,'' who has lately shown he knows how to do more than mix it up with adversaries and get out the vote in the old political-machine manner. On national TV, in his response to the President's appeal for support for his tax-reform package, Rostenkowski revealed a new side of himself: He came through to voters as communicative and likable as he promised Democratic support for the President in putting together what he said was long-needed help for the taxpayers of America.

Rosty makes no secret that he is going to try to shape this package in a way that will be palatable to those in the middle-income brackets: He finds unacceptable provisions of the President's proposals that would affect middle-income Americans. Thus, he told reporters, his committee would consider adding another and higher tax bracket for the wealthy on top of the three rates proposed by the President. He said this change would make the tax-reform proposal easier on the middle-income group. He said it would also bring in more revenue.

The next day Reagan said he was opposed to the new bracket. But Rostenkowski makes it clear he has been assured by Reagan that he will be flexible -- and that within this context of presidential and Democratic give-and-take a mutually acceptable bill will emerge.

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At an early point in the breakfast a reporter said: ``There is more and more talk that you now may become speaker: Has this prospect crossed your mind?''

``As a matter of fact,'' came the response, ``you set my sights a little lower than I do. I'm starting to be considered by a lot of people for president.'' Here Rosty laughed loudly. He knows well the political art of expressing his ambitions while, at the same time, indicating he doesn't take himself too seriously.

Perhaps, as time goes on, the Reagan-Rostenkowski relationship will fade. Or perhaps in later years one or both of the parties will put down its importance. But right now, it looks very promising.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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