WASHINGTON — President Reagan telephoned balky House Republicans on Monday to ask for their votes this week on sweeping tax overhaul legislation but he appeared to gain little, if any, ground in his belated campaign to persuade his own party members to support a bill produced by the Democratic-led House Ways and Means Committee.
"Based on what people are saying to him, I think there are going to be fewer (phone calls)," said California Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), a member of the Ways and Means panel and an opponent of the bill. "The President's time could be better spent elsewhere."
Reagan's phone calls followed a letter to Capitol Hill, in which he warned: "If a bill does not move forward from the House now, it is reasonable to suggest that tax reform might be 'dead' for several years. . . . A vote against final passage in the House would doom our efforts to achieve real tax reform for the American people."
Republicans are trying to rally support behind their own version of the bill, which would shift a smaller tax burden onto business than the committee's measure. However, the Republican alternative appears to have scant chance of passing in the overwhelmingly Democratic House.
"I strongly urge you to vote for tax reform--the Republican alternative or, should it not prevail, the Ways and Means bill," Reagan wrote in his letter.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who last week had said that strong and active lobbying by Reagan was crucial to the bill's survival, said the letter was "pretty strong" and probably could draw the GOP votes needed to assure passage.
"I would think the Republicans would follow their leader," O'Neill said. "I think we're going to need better than 50 Republicans, and I think we'll get better than 50 Republicans."
Joining many Republicans in their opposition to the bill are Democrats from oil-producing, timber-producing and heavy-manufacturing states. They contend that the Ways and Means bill would too heavily tax industries that already are suffering an economic slump.
"I think you're going to see a battle royal. The resistance is going to firm up this week, rather than weaken," California Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) said as he left a closed-door GOP caucus on the bill.
Lower Tax Rates
The committee's bill, like Reagan's earlier proposal, seeks to lower overall tax rates by limiting many popular write-offs. However, it takes a different approach, going further than Reagan had asked in pushing the tax burden from individual taxpayers to corporations. The House is expected to begin considering the measure Wednesday or Thursday and to vote this week.
Publicly, the Administration has pointedly avoided embracing the committee bill. White House spokesman Larry Speakes declined Monday to say whether Reagan would sign the bill if it passes both houses of Congress.
White House aides acknowledged privately, however, that they believe the Republican alternative will fail, which means that passage of the Ways and Means Committee bill is Reagan's only hope of accomplishing the top legislative priority of his second term: a complete overhaul of the nation's 72-year-old tax code. The Republican-led Senate has refused to even begin considering such a bill unless it wins House approval.
Some top Administration aides are questioning the Administration's wisdom in waiting until last weekend to begin lobbying for the bill, which the committee produced several weeks ago.
Opposition to Reform
"You can make the case that we should have gotten out front earlier instead of not making any comment for 10 days. We gave the opposition a lot of time to feel like they had an opening," said one. "There is substantial Republican opposition to tax reform, period. But the silence let them build up this emotional nothing-shall-pass approach."
Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), a member of the House GOP leadership, said that he received a phone call from Reagan, but it had not weakened his resolve to defeat the bill.
"I'm committed and locked in, and my position is not going to change," he said.