"I told Nancy," began Don Kendall, and the crowd leaned in a little closer, "I said we ought to have him over to a meeting like this every two weeks."

"We couldn't afford it," somebody laughed.

"Because everybody pounds him all the time with the negative," Kendall continued. "Presidents should hear positive things occasionally, shouldn't they?"

Last night, anyway, most of what members were hearing was positive at the windup dinner of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been meeting this week in Washington.

Kendall is the chairman of Pepsico, but as outgoing chairman of the Chamber, was one voice everybody listened to coming through the receiving line at the VIP reception at the Washington Hilton. With him were incoming chairman Paul Thayer, chief executive officer of the LTV Corp.; Richard Lesher, Chamber president; incoming vice chairman Edwin Dodd; and senior vice president William Van Meter, who was retiring after 31 years.

"I told the president there are some very positive signs out there," said Kendall, warming to his topic. "Not only are interest rates and inflation down, but there are signs that retail sales are up--small, but up--and that automobile sales are up."

What President Reagan heard Monday when he addressed the group was Chamber support at what Kendall called "this critical time."

"A very timely conference because we're at a point where decisions could be made on what's going to happen," said Kendall. "A lot of people in this town want to give the program up just as it is starting to work. But these Chamber people are from all over the country and they don't want change. They feel the way you balance the budget is to cut spending and not raise taxes."

Lesher put it another way:

"This group believes 100 percent in the program President Reagan started on, and they hope he stays on it, which is to rebuild the American industrial base, create jobs for Americans, give the tax cut a chance to work--to end the recession. We're confident it will end soon. We don't want new taxes. We fought for 30 years to get a tax cut."

A couple of senators in the crowd, Nevada Republican Paul Laxalt and Texas Democrat Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr., were "not optimistic" about prospects for a budget compromise between the White House and the Hill.

"If they deal in generalities, that means we haven't been able to arrive at an agreement," said Bentsen. "Then it means we go into the detail of the bill, which means a long and bloody process."

Richard Rahn, the Chamber's chief economist, milled through the crowd, which included Interior Secretary James Watt, Attorney General William French Smith, FBI director William Webster, Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), White House counsel Fred Fielding, Cabinet secretary Craig Fuller and Nancy Reagan's staff director, James Rosebush.

"If I had to guess," said Rahn, who spent "a lot of time" on the Hill last week, "I'd say the administration is about ready to bag the compromise. They finally realize there is no compromise."