'Big five' budget plan gets nowhere--so far
If the economy is waiting for Congress to act on the federal budget before it turns upward, the economy will have to wait a spell. For all the public hearings and closed-doors strategy sessions on Capitol Hill, the budget is moving at a snail's pace.
''We don't really have a stalemate yet,'' Senate Finance Committee chairman Robert Dole (R) of Kansas maintained during a breakfast with reporters March 16. But he conceded that even Republicans have yet to agree on basic figures, let alone a complete package.
One problem slowing up the works is that there is no sense of urgency. As a House Democratic staffer puts it, ''Congress does wonders when the wind is blowing from one direction.'' But the country is not pushing for further spending cutbacks now, he says, and ''nobody is picking up and aggressively trying to move'' the budget.
Senate Republicans will have to make the first move. ''If we can't do it, we can't expect the Democratic House to do it for us,'' says Senator Dole. So far the Republicans have only a ''little package of numbers that really don't mean anything,'' says the Finance Committee chairman.
However, that package is the only game on Capitol Hill. It represents the work of the so-called ''big five'' Republican senators: majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee, Budget chairman Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, Appropriations chairman Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, Dole, and Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, the Senate's strongest personal link with President Reagan.
The ''big five'' have the task of forging the golden compromise that can win 51 votes in the Senate, a majority in the House, plus the support of a President who has so far shown no sign that he will give way on his budget proposal. If the Republicans have not struck a deal, they have at least clarified the three main issues of dispute:
* Cost-of-living adjustments for entitlements, including social security, which cost close to $20 billion a year. This item is so big that reducing government spending without touching it will be almost impossible. Mr. Reagan has sent up warning signals not to touch social security, but members of Congress are not giving up yet.
Republicans still see a possible crack in Reagan's solid stand on social security. They say he'll go along if the Democratic leadership will go along too. ''He's not going to walk into that same trap twice,'' says Dole, recalling Reagan's disastrous proposal to reform social security last year. But Dole predicts that the President will come around if he knows Democrats will not make it a political issue.
House minority leader Robert H. Michel (R) of Illinois clearly wants to tackle entitlements now. He wasted no time in praising a reform proposed this week by two Democratic congressmen.
* Personal income tax cuts for 1983, the hallmark of Reagan's supply-side economics. The President has adamantly defended the cuts, which will reduce revenues by almost $40 billion. Democratic leaders want to restore at least some of the taxes to reduce the deficit, and that may be their price for cooperation on other issues.
Senator Dole sees one ''Catch-22'' in the tax cut dispute. If Congress takes back some of the tax cuts, that will reduce the pressure to hold the line on cost-of-living raises for pensions and other entitlements, meaning overall government spending could continue to spiral.
* Defense spending. Although President Reagan holds fast to his $263 billion proposal, Dole says that the Pentagon will certainly be cut back. However, Finance chairman Dole will have to contend with Senate Armed Services chairman John G. Tower (R) of Texas, who staunchly defends the President's proposal. Senator Tower predicted this week that Congress will not cut much, once members understand the total picture on defense.
Meanwhile, Reagan pursues his ''hang tough'' campaign in speeches around the country, as he lambasts Congress for its spendthrift ways and refuses to budge on his spending and tax proposal. Dole and others on Capitol Hill see that tactic as a good bargaining position, since no one has yet presented a complete budget alternative.
''I wouldn't recommend that he start negotiating away his plan,'' says Dole.
The rhetoric seems to do little for Democratic willingness to cooperate, however. As a Democratic budget staffer in the House says, the President cannot jab at Democrats in speeches away from Washington and ''then expect us to compromise.''
In the long run all sides may be forced to cooperate. By May or June, the federal government runs out of money and will need to borrow more by lifting its legal debt ceiling. That vote is expected to include major budget action as well.