Democratic House negotiators Wednesday sharply questioned the viability of Senate legislation mandating a balanced budget by 1991 as congressional conferees began talks under pressure to finish work on the controversial proposal in three weeks.
The Democrats expressed concern about whether the proposed deficit-cutting plan might bring on a recession, squeeze social programs more than defense and give the President too much power.
In addition, they protested that there is too little time to resolve all the complicated questions surrounding the sweeping Senate proposal.
'Threatens the Balance'
"We are asked to consume both the enormity of the concept and the complexity of the details--and develop alternatives, where necessary--on a plan that promises to surrender broad powers to the President and threatens the balance of our social responsibility," complained Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), the chief House negotiator.
Even so, the conferees--faced with crucial congressional elections next year--began work on their formidable task despite skepticism by critics who contend that the current annual budget deficits of about $200 billion cannot be eliminated in six years. Grass-roots protests have forced legislators in both parties to press for a balanced-budget plan in efforts to escape political blame for the unprecedented red ink.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said he believes that the provision requiring Congress to decide in the month of October whether to make a host of unpopular spending cuts is "totally unrealistic." Next year, he noted, "we would be addressing all these questions when people are trying to get reelected."
However, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), the top Senate conferee, voiced optimism that the bargainers would produce a compromise that would be "a hallmark, a pinnacle for us and a triumph for the country."
Social Security Exempt
The Senate-passed legislation would require projected deficits to be reduced by $36 billion annually in the next six years. If Congress failed to meet the goals by Oct. 1 of each year, all programs except Social Security and government contracts would be subject to automatic, across-the-board cuts unless Congress and the President subsequently came up with an alternative program of cuts or tax increases.
The Senate approved the budget measure last week as an amendment to a bill required to raise the federal debt ceiling to $2 trillion. Treasury Department officials said Wednesday that the debt legislation will be needed by about Nov. 1, when the government's cash supply will run out. Social Security checks due to be mailed Nov. 4 will bounce if the government's borrowing authority is not extended by then.
Senate Republican leaders, backed by President Reagan, are trying to use the "must-pass" debt ceiling bill as leverage to force passage of the budget-balancing plan. House Democratic leaders suggested Wednesday that they still might press to have the two issues severed on grounds that more time is needed to consider the balanced-budget legislation.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said he was concerned that the Senate plan's provision for automatic spending cuts if Congress fails to meet deficit-reduction targets might trigger a recession.
Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), concerned that welfare programs would be slashed, complained that the Senate's deficit-reduction plan would mandate only spending cuts, not tax increases.
However, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, claimed that his chamber's proposal could force the President to choose between deep defense cuts or a hefty tax increase--both anathemas to Reagan.
Domenici said that if the President believed that defense was going to be cut too deeply by automatic spending cuts, he would have 30 days to recommend an alternative program, which could include tax increases.