Budget freeze could scotch Reagan trims
Weeks before the presidential budget is complete, some Republican members of Congress are so pessimistic about its passage that they are already looking for an alternative.
As a result, 1985 could be the year of enacting the freeze. After knocking about Capitol Hill for four years, the idea of freezing virtually every federal program is gaining new luster, especially since the Reagan administration outlined its probable budget strategy this week.
The White House proposal to take $32 billion from domestic spending while trimming only about $9 billion from defense has even Reagan stalwarts crying unfair and impossible. Members of both parties are predicting that such a budget would be doomed at the outset and would merely set off six months of wrangling in Congress.
''I don't think we can wait around for the budget process,'' says an aide to the House Republican leader, Robert H. Michel of Illinois. The GOP leader is now considering much quicker action, especially pushing for a ''freeze right off the bat'' when Congress returns, says the aide. As a second step, he may propose a package of specific reductions such as those already suggested by the President.
Rep. Richard Cheney of Wyoming, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, also talked this week of the growing popularity of an across-the-board freeze. He says he would include all spending in a freeze, including the politically sensitive cost-of-living adjustments for social security benefits.
''I personally am prepared to vote to limit social security,'' he said this week, conceding that ''there's no great enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for that.'' GOP leader Michel, for example, would exempt social security from a freeze.
The idea of freezing spending has won broad support as a way to spread the budget cutting fairly. An aide to Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico predicts that as soon as the new Congress convenes next month, senators will be filling the hopper with new budget proposals. All of them will be variations of the freeze, he says.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) of Iowa, a member of the Senate Budget Committee , first offered the idea four years ago, and his plan continues to be the one most discussed. His freeze for fiscal 1986 would save $35 billion, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate.
The proposal is said to cut $16 billion by holding defense-budget authority at 1985 levels; $10 billion by eliminating cost-of-living adjustments for social security and other benefit programs; $3 billion by freezing payments to doctors and hospitals for medicare and medicaid; $3 billion by holding all other federal programs to '85 spending; and $2 billion by freezing civil-service pay.
The Grassley plan would also save $2 billion because of lower interest payments for the deficit.
Known as the ''K.G.B. freeze'' because it was backed in the last Congress by Sens. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, Grassley, and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware, the proposal won 33 votes on the Senate floor. Grassley has already promised to reintroduce it, and he may find more supporters this time.
For all its appeal, however, the freeze also has problems.
''To most people, when you say 'freeze,' it sounds good,'' says Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin. But he adds that ''we've kicked around the freeze for years'' without enacting it.
He says the chief reason is probably that the plan is less attractive once the details are clear. A freeze would mean ''a lot of pain,'' he says.
The most politically painful would be changes in social security, which President Reagan has pledged to leave untouched. A freeze would mean no annual increase for recipients in 1986. Without the social security provision, the freeze plan would save little money. And even with the provision, the freeze would be only a start in reducing deficits estimated at close to $200 billion a year.
The Reagan administration opposed the Grassley freeze in the Senate last session, and it is unlikely to back a full-scale freeze for 1986.
But among the Republicans in Congress there is a growing urgency about reducing the federal budget deficit, which could result in some lawmakers taking risky stands.