Congress Back, Facing Tough Deficit Choices

Times Staff Writers

Confronted with the nasty task of slashing popular government programs before facing the voters next November, members of the 99th Congress reconvene today for what is certain to be a tumultuous election-year session.

In addition to the usual political posturing that normally slows the legislative process before an election, the lawmakers will be laboring this year under an extraordinary legislative mandate known as Gramm-Rudman--the budget-reduction law named for its authors, Republican Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire.

Unpalatable Actions

Gramm-Rudman, enacted late last year, requires Congress to trim the federal deficit to annual specified levels, beginning March 1. Congressional leaders predict that it will force senators and representatives to choose among highly unpalatable actions that they have been pondering for years--cutting programs favored by middle-class voters or raising taxes or combining cuts and tax increases.

Normally, under such circumstances, Congress might be expected to take the easy way out by doing nothing or delaying the decision until after the election. But some members are predicting that election-year pressures will have the opposite effect in 1986.

"If we just mill around and do nothing, there could be an anti-incumbency mood out there by next November," said Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Both Democrats and Republicans are going to be afraid that they might be blamed for doing nothing. So it's possible that the pressures of the election will lead to Congress' accomplishing a great deal."

Even so, the task of complying with Gramm-Rudman is unlikely to be accomplished without tremendous acrimony between Democrats and Republicans and additional friction between Congress and President Reagan. As one Senate aide put it: "You'll see an already partisan environment become electric with partisanship."

Partisan Politics

Indeed, partisan politics will color virtually every major issue facing Congress during this session, including the House-passed initiative on tax reform, proposals to narrow the nation's mammoth trade deficit, continued aid for the Nicaraguan rebels, arms sales to Arab nations, sanctions against South Africa, aid for financially beleaguered American farmers and efforts to combat terrorism.

On questions of deficit reduction and taxes, as well as a variety of other controversial issues, Democrats will be looking for ways to seize the political advantage in hopes of accomplishing their primary goal--wresting control of the Senate from the current GOP majority.

Republicans now occupy 22 of the 34 Senate seats at stake in the November election, and the Democrats need a net gain of only four seats to have a majority. This would give the Democrats control of both the House and Senate in the final two years of Reagan's presidency, making it harder for him to achieve his legislative goals.

As to satisfying the Gramm-Rudman requirements for deficit reduction, Democrats will argue that Reagan and the Republicans are to blame for creating the problem--and thus, the country should look to them for a solution.

"It's all Reagan's fault," said Christopher J. Matthews, spokesman for House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). "Reaganomics never added up. Now, we're paying the price."

Meanwhile, Republicans hope the President will take the lead in proposing an acceptable solution, because Reagan--unlike many leading members of his party in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.)--is not up for reelection in November.

But, so far, the President has shown no willingness to make the job any easier for his congressional supporters. He is still pressing for deeper cuts in popular domestic programs, while adamantly opposing a tax increase or further reductions in military spending.

Hard Work for Dole

"There's going to be a hue and cry that domestic programs should not take all of the cuts," Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) predicted. "With 22 Republican senators holding up their fingers to the political wind, Mr. Dole will have his work cut out for him in trying to lead his party in this matter."

Under Gramm-Rudman, roughly half of the budget will suffer automatic, across-the-board cuts March 1 unless Congress can agree on a more acceptable way of reducing the deficit by $11.7 billion. Although Social Security and many programs benefiting the poor would be exempt, the cuts would have a strong impact on such popular programs as the U.S. Park Service and the fight against drug smugglers along U.S. borders.

But House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) noted that the March cuts will be mild compared to the second round of automatic reductions slated to take place at the start of fiscal 1987 on Oct. 1. It is estimated that as much as $75 billion could come under the deficit-reduction ax at that time, eliminating many programs entirely.

As a result, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) predicted that many members of Congress will try to circumvent Gramm-Rudman rather than face up to its consequences. One such effort is being led by Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.), who has filed suit in federal court seeking to have the controversial law declared unconstitutional.

The betting among most lawmakers is that Congress, by threatening the President with deep cuts in Pentagon spending, eventually will persuade him to support a tax hike, despite his chief legislative goal of the year--a revision of the nation's tax laws to change many tax breaks without increasing overall tax collections.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) predicted that a levy of $5 to $10 on each barrel of imported oil would be part of an eventual "grand compromise" between Congress and the White House on deficit reduction.

Would Back Tax Hike

Although Democrats would support a tax hike, they do not intend to propose one for fear of taking the blame for it. "We're not going to plow the way for it--no, sir," said California Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Nor will the Republicans take credit for a tax increase, even if they propose it. As Vander Jagt explained, any tax hike supported by the GOP "would have to be what we all call euphemistically 'revenue enhancement.' "

For similar reasons, Senate Republicans may deny Reagan any tax revision. A tax-overhaul bill passed by the Democratic-controlled House last year contains what Dole described as "politically popular big-ticket tax loopholes" that neither the Senate nor the President can accept.

"So, the prognosis for tax reform is uncertain," Dole concluded.

Likewise, the President's plan to sell arms to Jordan is expected to meet with strong opposition in Congress. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) has advised the White House to withdraw the proposal to avoid the embarrassment of having it rejected by the House and Senate.

But Reagan's request for military aid to the Nicarguan rebels, known as contras, may get a friendlier hearing in Congress in 1986 than it has in the past. Although current law permits only humanitarian aid, Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) predicted that there will be bipartisan support for military aid this year if the contras can be persuaded to develop what he called "a civic action program" to give them wider popular appeal within Nicaragua.

In their quest for election-year issues, the Democrat will revive efforts to impose tough economic sanctions on South Africa. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.) predicted that his party will press for Senate approval of a House-passed bill that Reagan sidetracked last year by agreeing to weaker sanctions.

Trade and farm legislation also will be revived by Democrats--and also for political reasons. According to Matthews, these bills will be part of an overall Democratic election-year theme that calls for "reestablishing America's competitive edge and opening up opportunities for people's careers to develop."

Coelho said that the Democrats hope their farm legislation will help their candidates to win key House races in the Midwest, and the trade bill will be a potent issue in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, which have suffered particularly from unemployment caused by increased imports.

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