In what one Republican senator called "stupid strong-arm tactics," the White House announced Friday that when GOP congressmen start asking President Reagan for reelection help next year, "we will help our friends first."
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said friendship will be measured by how a congressman votes on issues dear to the President's heart, such as his proposed budget, the MX missile, funds for the U.S.-backed rebels in Nicaragua and tax simplification.
The "friends first" policy--developed by Max Friedersdorf, the President's chief legislative strategist--was aimed particularly at the 22 Republican senators who are up for reelection next year and undoubtedly will be looking to Reagan for fund-raising help. And one of the special targets appeared to be freshman Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who responded angrily Friday to the White House announcement.
Iowa Sentiment Cited
Grassley, who opposes key elements of the President's budget and is an outspoken critic of his farm policies, issued a press release headlined: "Administration Strong Arm Tactics." It contended that the Administration's heavy hand would only help his popularity "soar" in Iowa.
"It's a stupid thing to do," said Grassley, a member of the pivotal Senate Budget Committee. "Whoever in the White House is doing this is not too politically wise. I don't think the President himself would do this."
Speakes confirmed that "the President hasn't approved anything"--that it is strictly a White House staff policy.
In fact, the President--legendary in political circles for his lack of vindictiveness--always has been reluctant to do anything to hurt Republican incumbents. And this is expected to be particularly true next year as Republicans struggle to retain their narrow 53-47 margin in the Senate.
Speakes said Friedersdorf last week told a meeting of GOP Senate aides that "the twin goals of the Administration are to reelect a Republican Senate and to get the budget passed. Those are the two most important things to us at the moment." Speakes said these goals carry "equal priority."
The subtle message was that the White House considers getting the President's budget passed just as important as retaining GOP control of the Senate.
Speakes noted that Reagan in recent days has been using "friendly persuasion" on wavering Republican congressmen. "This will continue," the spokesman said. "There are no strong-arm tactics on our part. The President has not authorized anything. But, to be absolutely candid, we will help our friends first."
Committed to GOP Senate
He added: "The President will be committed to maintaining a Republican Senate in '86, and he has always campaigned--when he is able--for all Republicans. And he will do so again this year. But let me emphasize that we will help our friends first."
Sen. Mark Andrews of North Dakota, another Republican member of the Senate Budget Committee who is up for reelection next year, said: "I think some overzealous third-level aide in the White House had a bad day."
Andrews not only objects to some of Reagan's major domestic spending cuts but also has been advocating a tax increase in opposition to the President. "This isn't the way you play the game," he said of the White House strategy. "People in North Dakota didn't elect me to be a rubber stamp."