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Losing One for the Gipper

December 13, 1985

Has the Gipper lost the touch? This is one of many questions raised by the events of the past several days in Washington. In particular, the White House was caught off guard by the revolt of Republican members of the House of Representatives voting 164-14 against the Reagan-Rostenkowski tax-reform plan. How could the White House suffer such a stunning setback on the President's top domestic priority item?

The Administration also got itself into a box on the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction plan. President Reagan committed himself to the proposal without realizing the effect that it could have on the defense budget. There had been plenty of warning, even from some Democrats. Protests from Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and others in the Administration were rejected as the White House scrambled to capture some 11th-hour political credit for "doing something" about the deficit crisis.

The political fallout is not likely to settle for months, perhaps not until the congressional elections next fall. But some preliminary conclusions are possible, and they do not add up to an impressive record of leadership for the Administration.

The White House failed to communicate with Republican leaders in the House on tax reform. The GOP was largely frozen out of the drafting of the bill by the House Ways and Means Committee under Democratic Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. The President's belated endorsement of the Rostenkowski plan provided a further snub. The White House could not give the Republicans sufficient reason to support the bill. The old appeal of winning one for the Gipper was just not enough.

Rostenkowski delivered on his promise to the President to produce a tax bill. But when Rostenkowski needed to talk strategy with the President on the telephone, White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan refused to put the calls through. No wonder Rostenkowski said on Thursday, as the White House scurried to recoup: "It's the President's call, and I haven't received it."

Barring an unexpected reversal, Democrats can go into the 1986 elections claiming that they produced tax reform only to have Republicans kill it. Republicans feel undercut by their own Chief Executive, but can do little more than mutter under their breaths.

The White House has a tremendous amount of fence-mending to do on a number of fronts. The Administration must act soon or it will be hearing the words lame duck with growing frequency.

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