WASHINGTON — White House officials and Senate Republican leaders acknowledged Wednesday that they lack the majority they need to approve the $52-billion deficit-reduction package President Reagan took before the public via national television Wednesday night.
But Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has a strategy for pushing the controversial package through the Senate. If it works, senators will have a chance to go on record against some of the most politically unpalatable measures, such as a limit on Social Security benefit increases, at the same time that they vote for the package as a whole.
That way, they will be able to tell the voters that they supported some locally popular spending programs but voted for the overall budget as necessary tough medicine to combat runaway deficits.
Under Dole's plan, the Senate will cast an up-or-down vote on the Republican package as early as today. Even if the package prevails--still a possibility--wavering senators then will have a chance to vote against some of its most unpopular parts.
After the Senate completes its piecemeal consideration of the measure, it will have one last opportunity to vote on a final compromise that would reverse some of the individual decisions.
"Some senators have told us (that) they will have to vote against the President on certain issues, but that they will be with us on the final deal," a top Administration official said.
Lobbyists for groups that would be most affected by the budget cuts acknowledge the strategy has them worried. William R. Hutton, executive director of the National Council of Senior Citizens, said his group will win a separate Senate vote on restoring the full Social Security benefit increase. But, asked if he thinks the full increase will be preserved in a final package, he said only: "I hope so. It's going to be difficult."
Under the budget agreement announced early this month by the White House and key Senate Republicans, the federal deficit would be trimmed by an estimated $52 billion in fiscal 1986 below the $227 billion that it is expected to reach if current spending programs continue. By 1988, under the GOP plan, the deficit would shrink to less than $100 billion if the economy picks up steam again and continues to grow for the next three years.
That goal would be achieved without a tax increase, but it would require eliminating or sharply scaling back dozens of domestic programs. Social Security benefits would grow by 2 percentage points less than the inflation rate, with a guaranteed 2% increase; 17 domestic programs would be eliminated and Reagan's proposed growth in defense spending--6% on top of inflation--would be cut in half.
Capitalize on Speech
By forcing a vote as early as today on the shaky GOP budget plan, Republican leaders hope to capitalize on the political firestorm they expect Reagan's speech to generate.
The President "needs to scare us a bit," Dole said before the speech. "We're all running around here like we have a big surplus saying, 'Don't cut this,' and, 'Don't cut that.' "
The strategy is also designed to discourage amendments aimed at restoring money to programs targeted for sharp cuts. Sponsors of such amendments would be required to acknowledge how much their proposals would add to the deficit.
In addition to as many as 50 separate amendments from both Republicans and Democrats, Senate Democratic leaders are expected to propose an alternative to the GOP budget package that would:
--Freeze defense spending at current levels adjusted for inflation;
--Skip the cost-of-living adjustment next year for all benefit programs except those for the poor;
--Restore several domestic programs, including those that affect farmers, small businesses, and students.
The Democratic plan would also raise taxes $67 billion over three years by not allowing individuals and corporations to increase their use of tax breaks beyond current levels.
"Democrats are willing to share the burden," said Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida, the top-ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee. But under the GOP plan, Chiles argued, "the budget has become an instrument of national retrenchment rather than an investment in our future."
Tax Veto Threatened
White House officials, however, insisted that Reagan would veto any tax increase, calling it "counterproductive." White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan argued: "Deficit reduction is mandatory. If we have more restraint, we'll have lower interest rates."
Budget Director David A. Stockman, attempting to put maximum pressure on the Senate to approve the GOP plan at the first showdown vote, said failure to win a victory on the budget proposal could open it to a possible "demolition derby" that would allow senators to pick the package apart, piece by piece.
But a top Senate Republican staff member argued that even such a setback could still be overcome in later maneuvering. "There are many ways to skin a cat," he said. "Just because we might lose in the first round doesn't mean we can't turn around votes the next day."