The day the House turned history's corner
It was one of those scenes that come at the end of a drama that has been building up for a long time. How would the Democratic House treat the Republican President on the key issue of budget-slashing and retrenchment? At the joint session April 28 Mr. Reagan told the legislators with a mixture of affectionate greeting and canny political skill, "Our goverment is too big and spends too much. . .Isn't it time that we tried something new?" It was great drama; they cheered him; then they sat down with their tabulators and adding machines to write a budget. At this point Mr. REagan had already won three-quarters of his budget battle: Democrats agreed that the government was too big, that it was spending too much, that there was a link between inflation and deficits, and that a historic slash should now be made in the non-defense items. It was a reconsideration of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, nothing less. But where should the cuts be made? That was the issue.
So now the historic scene itself; let's try to remember it: it is four o'clok , Thursday, May 7, in the House of Representatives and they have been at it since 10, presenting the case for two rival measures, the Republican proposal (Gramm-Latta) baited to attract uncertain Democrats and the Democratic rival (Jones) intended to tempt footloose Republicans.
The jammed galleries lean forward, knowing that decision is near. Democratic majority leader Jim Wright, standing at his desk and facing the rows of seats, says, quoting Mr. Reagan, that the President asked them Feb. 18 to propose an acceptable package, "an alternative which offers a greater chance of balancing the budget, reducing and elimination inflation, stimulating the creation of jobs and reducing the tax burden."
This, Representative Wright argues, they have done. Not so, promptly replies Rep. Robert M. Michel of Peoria, Ill., summing it up for the Republicans. The true bipartisan package, he insists, is Gramm-Latta: "Let history record that we provided the margin of difference that changed the course of American government ," he concludes.
There is a stir in the big hall: "Tip" O'Neill, speaker of the House and almost a myth in his own time, has stepped down from the podium and is about to make his final appeal, knowing already that it is probably a lost cause. He is a monumental figure, 250 pounds at 69, with bulbous nose and shock of white hair flopping over his forehead. He has been described as the quintessential quid-pro-quo politician. (He was also the first top Democrat in the House who swung around against the Vietnam War in a principled decision.) Now his appeal is direct and partisan; yes, he argues, the totals of the proposed budget cuts in the rival bills are much alike, but the Democrats spare the poor, the Republicans the affluent. "I have been in public life for 46 years," he notes at the end in a final appeal intended to emphasize the importance of the forthcoming vote.
"All time has expired," says the presiding officer.
The Reagan coalition wins. Sixty-three Democrats, mostly Southern conservatives, join 190 Republicans. There is not a single GOP defection. First the House votes, 253 to 176, supporting the proposed Reagan $689 billion budget with a projected deficit of $31 billion, and then it adopts the budget itself 270 to 154.
There are headlines next day, of course. Not many presidents start off with a crashing victory like that. Can Mr. Reagan keep it up? He has the battle right ahead, the battle over a proposed big tax reduction. The stock and bond markets seem to have doubts about this. Will the proposed $30-billion tax cut, or some variant of it, halt or enhance inflation, which already is running about 10 percent? Nobody knows. All that anybody knows is that there will be more dramatic scenes ahead in a turbulent transition in which one chapter of history has just ended and a new one has just begun. 52900100027331 NOVEMBER 15, 1981