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Reagan Gains Tax Victory but Aides See Peril Ahead

December 18, 1985|ELEANOR CLIFT and KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Reagan received the credit Tuesday for turning around Republican sentiment in the House and resurrecting his tax overhaul proposal, but the White House took little comfort from the display of the President's political muscle.

One adviser called it less a victory than "an avoidance of cataclysmic loss." Another termed it "short-term gratification" and warned that the written assurances Reagan gave House Republicans about what he would accept from the Senate makes the enactment of tax overhaul extremely unlikely in 1986.

In a statement, Reagan called the successful vote "another step" in a difficult process and pledged: "I will not relax until Congress has once and for all cast the final vote that will ensure tax reform for the American people."

A final vote next year is still possible because the House, which had voted last week not even to take up tax overhaul, reversed itself Tuesday. The second time around, 70 Republicans supported allowing a vote on tax revision, five times as many as last Wednesday, and those who switched their votes gave Reagan the credit.

'Couldn't Turn Him Down'

"The President made a personal request of me and I couldn't turn him down," said Rep. George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania. "It was a very persuasive effort."

In the five days since the White House was shocked into action by the GOP rebellion, Reagan personally saw more than 30 of his Republican compatriots in the House and telephoned nearly 50 more with his plea for the tax bill. He even went to Capitol Hill on Monday for a last-ditch appeal for GOP unity.

"It demonstrated his personal commitment and strength of resolve to secure tax reform," presidential assistant Dennis Thomas said.

Although Reagan never before had lobbied personally in Congress without some assurance that he would prevail, White House officials said they did not have the requisite 50 Republican votes demanded by the Democratic leadership when Reagan paid his visit Monday. The decision to risk Reagan's presidential authority was made because "they didn't have a choice," an adviser said.

Telephone Roundup

In fact, this adviser said, White House strategists as recently as Monday afternoon could count only 35 to 38 Republican supporters. Some Republican recalcitrants were brought home in a telephone roundup late Monday night by Secretary of the Treasury James A. Baker III and chief White House lobbyist M. B. Oglesby. Baker and Oglesby set up shop in the office of House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, who maintained his opposition to the tax bill despite all the presidential pressure.

Reagan nailed down the final GOP commitments in an arm-twisting session Tuesday morning at the White House. "He did the things for which Ronald Reagan is famous," said an aide, stressing the personal nature of Reagan's appeal to the House Republicans.

But Reagan did more than wield his considerable charm. He made specific pledges, which Republicans insisted on getting in writing, about what he would and would not accept once a bill goes through the Senate and reaches his desk for signature. Reagan vowed not to sign a bill that left the top tax rate higher than 35% (it is 38% in the House bill) and the personal exemption less than $2,000 (the bill effectively lifts it to $2,000 for taxpayers who do not itemize their deductions but to only $1,500 for itemizers).

Opportunity to Succeed

Those assurances were critical to the support of Republicans such as William S. Broomfield of Michigan, whose constituents include the chairmen of the Big Three auto makers. "Most people want to give tax reform an opportunity to succeed," Broomfield explained, "and if we don't vote this way, it's dead."

Some White House aides fear that Reagan's assurances to the House Republicans will box him in when the issue moves to the Senate. "The President and the Senate cannot afford to smash each other," said one adviser, predicting that tax reform will take a back seat to Senate efforts to cut the deficit.

"In the final assessment," a White House political adviser said, "the chances of an acceptable tax plan coming out of the Senate are pretty slim."

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