WASHINGTON — The White House, bracing for a congressional backlash against the deep domestic spending cuts required under the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget law, has launched a campaign on Capitol Hill to head off an expected Democratic drive to increase taxes and cut defense spending.
Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan has begun regular weekly meetings with key congressmen in an effort to mend GOP fences torn during last year's acrimonious debate over President Reagan's proposal to overhaul the tax code.
A Regan aide called the sessions an effort to "reach out and share with them our rationale for what we do," a sharp contrast with last year, when Regan was attacked by Republicans for being out of touch with congressional concerns.
Main Theme of Speech
At a meeting last week with the so-called Big Four of the House Republican leadership, Regan said that the President will make his pledge to hold the line on any new taxes a central theme of his annual State of the Union speech Jan. 28.
Congressional Democrats have taken the position that they will press for an income tax increase only if Reagan proposes one, although pressure is building on Congress for a narrower measure such as an oil import fee.
White House strategists said that they also will attempt to portray any Democrats who seek defense cuts as "soft on defense," a position they assume will not play well in a congressional election year.
The Republicans' own polls, however, show an erosion in public support for Reagan's defense buildup, with an increasing number of Americans favoring a cutback to help shrink the budget deficit. White House officials said that Reagan will work to rebuild his public consensus on defense over the coming months with a series of speeches stressing that U.S. military gains were responsible for bringing the Soviets back to nuclear arms control talks.
The driving force behind Regan's early courtship of congressional Republicans is the newly enacted Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget legislation, which requires across-the-board cuts from most defense and domestic programs if Congress cannot reduce the deficit on its own through spending cuts or tax increases.
"They realize that with Gramm-Rudman, they're sunk if everybody doesn't know what everybody else is doing," said Susan Irby, press secretary to Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), one of the House Republican leaders who attended the first meeting in Regan's White House office.
Staff aides to the congressmen who met with Regan indicated satisfaction with his efforts to smooth the lines of communication after last month's GOP rebellion over tax overhaul legislation. Although the President eventually prevailed and won House passage of the bill, House Republicans had served notice that they could no longer be taken for granted.
"The lesson was learned that House Republicans can't be ignored," said John Buckley, press secretary to Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, another of the GOP House leaders.
In an additional show of good faith, Reagan will speak at a luncheon hosted by the House members of his party on Jan. 31.
The courtship is only one ingredient of the White House campaign to "frame the debate" as budgetary pressures threaten to undo both the President's defense buildup and his promise to resist a tax increase. "If we're going to prevail, 80% of it is up to how we frame the debate," a top White House official said.
Summit Meeting Cited
This official cited Reagan's summit meeting in November with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev as an example of how the White House can manipulate public and media opinion. "It wasn't a fireside summit by accident," he said.
To frame the upcoming budget debate, the official said, Reagan will use his State of the Union speech to align himself with the average taxpayer against the big spenders of Washington, a tactic that has worked successfully for him throughout his political career. He will say that those who support a tax increase "are asking the wrong people to tighten their belts." And he will ask Congress to "reduce the federal budget, not the family budget."
The official said that Reagan will personalize his anti-tax argument, asking Americans whether they would rather fund a nameless federal program or spend their extra tax dollars for a new car, a child's education or a parent's medical expenses. "That makes it real and relevant," he said.