Nearly a year of struggle over deficits has finally produced a sweeping bill to balance the federal budget. Supporters hail it as a new tool for enforcing fiscal austerity. The question now, even among backers, is whether it will reduce deficits.
``This bill is a historical watershed,'' says Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. ``It's worthy of a try.''
He spoke as the Senate moved yesterday toward final passage of the measure, which would give the president authority to make automatic spending cuts if Congress failed to reduce the deficit. President Reagan has backed the legislation.
In other action yesterday, Congress dealt a surprise blow to Mr. Reagan's other major legislative interest, tax revision. The House rejected a procedural rule needed to bring up the tax bill.
This setback for passage of a tax overhaul came at the hands of House Republicans, who voted overwhelmingly against bringing the bill to the floor. Only 14 members of the President's party voted for the rule.
``My view is maybe we ought to step back a little bit,'' said GOP House leader Robert H. Michel after the vote. The Illinois lawmaker said the move does not kill the tax revision but merely delays it. House leaders had hoped to complete action on the bill this week.
Republicans said they voted to slow the tax bill because they objected to the House Ways and Means Committee version and wanted a new version of tax overhaul. ``We're all sympathic of his goals,'' said Rep. Jack F. Kemp (R) of New York of President Reagan's campaign for tax reform. But he charged that the House bill fell too short of the mark.
House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts lambasted the GOP, saying the Republicans had ``showed their contempt for the White House by voting overwhelmingly against the tax reform process.''
The Speaker also said that if the tax bill is to pass then the President will have to deliver more votes. ``Otherwise, Dec. 11 will be remembered as the date that Ronald Reagan became a `lame duck' on the floor of the House.''
On the balanced-budget plan, lawmakers voiced both hopes and doubts; predictions of possible disastrous consequences were balanced against concerns about whether it is constitutional.