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Negotiators Aren't Sure Congress Will OK Budget Cuts

November 16, 1987|JOSH GETLIN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As they enter the final week of emergency budget negotiations with the White House, congressional negotiators for both parties said Sunday that the real hurdle may not be meeting a Friday deadline, but assembling a sweeping package of budget cuts and new taxes that their colleagues in the House and Senate will approve.

Members of Congress want to avoid the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that are scheduled to take effect on Friday unless an alternative deficit-reduction package emerges, negotiators said. But they are also concerned about the political ramifications of any budgetary agreement, especially as members head into an election year.

'Ideal' Approach

It would be "ideal" for participants in the bipartisan budget negotiations simply to hammer out an agreement with the White House, call a press conference and announce the details jointly, said Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

But the reality is that "we then have to go back and convince our membership--both on the Republican and on the Democratic side--that this is doable," he added. "You've got to go out there and convince your colleagues, and the climate isn't too conducive for that."

Budget negotiators got a preview of the rough road ahead when they received negative feedback last week from House and Senate colleagues about proposals that have been debated in the marathon negotiating sessions, varying from cuts in defense and domestic spending to freezes in Social Security benefit increases and $12 billion in new taxes.

"We were very euphoric (about reaching an agreement) . . . we were on the verge of agreement and the letdown was after we went back and touched signals with some of our respective people a1852055668doing?' " said House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), appearing with Rostenkowski on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."

'It Won't Be Unanimous'

"And, of course, (it's) difficult for the average member to realize that you can't have it exactly the way he wants it. Everybody has got to give in this thing. It won't be a unanimous vote: it's going to be split on both sides."

The budget negotiations, which commenced three weeks ago after the Wall Street collapse, were designed to send a reassuring signal to financial markets that the federal government could reduce its $180-billion deficit and also enact long-term economic reforms. Since then, however, participants have disagreed sharply over the ingredients of a budget reduction package and have been slow to reach any compromise.

Democratic and Republican negotiators expressed confidence Sunday that the talks will produce an agreement this week, before the Gramm-Rudman deficit-cutting law takes effect on Friday and reduces domestic and military spending by $23 billion.

However, if House and Senate negotiators believe an agreement is near, Congress can pass emergency legislation to delay the Gramm-Rudman deadline. None of the negotiators expect to pass a completed version of the deficit-reduction package by this week.

Two-Year Pact Seen

President Reagan has predicted the negotiations will lead to a two-year agreement, producing a $30-billion deficit cut this fiscal year and a $50-billion reduction in fiscal 1988. But as the Friday deadline nears, there is still disagreement over the levels of spending cuts and new revenues plus growing concern over their political implications.

On Sunday, for example, several negotiators backed away from a controversial proposal that would delay for three months an increase in cost-of-living benefits for Social Security recipients, federal employees and others dependent on government retirement checks.

The proposal, which has been floated in recent negotiating sessions, could save the government billions of dollars. Some members fear that even such modest reductions in payments to powerful voting blocs could also cost them their careers.

"That's political dynamite," said Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), who chairs the Senate Budget Committee and is up for reelection next year in a state with a large number of senior citizens. "Both sides are afraid of it."

'Cart Before the Horse'

House Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who appeared with Chiles on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley," added that negotiators can reduce the deficit "without getting into COLAs (cost-of-living adjustments) . . . I think you're getting the cart before544499813about that area, because that's not the area that's causing the problem."

If there is any move to tinker with the Social Security program, Michel said, "one party is not going to consider it on its own. It's going to be done by both parties."

Despite their political trepidation, Democrats and Republicans agree that some deficit reduction must come at the expense of the so-called entitlement programs, such as welfare, Medicare, Social Security and federal pension payments, for which people automatically become eligible based on income, age or other criteria.

Such programs, whose spending levels are often set by a fixed formula, have grown into one of the most uncontrollable areas of the federal budget. Negotiators, who have tentatively agreed on $3 billion in entitlement cuts, are now trying to cut an additional $2 billion. But they still have "peaks and valleys" to cross before finding a solution, Rostenkowski said.

At the outset of the budget talks, Reagan said negotiators could consider a wide variety of options, except cuts in Social Security.

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