THE MANEUVERING is under way, quietly but intensely, to produce a budget compromise. There isn't a great deal of time to waste. The federal debt will hit its legal ceiling soon, perhaps in early May, and without a budget agreement it will be very difficult to get legislation passed to raise that ceiling. Then the government would begin to have trouble writing checks.
Throughout Congress--in the Senate and in the House, among Republicans and Democrats--the urgent need for a revised budget is widely acknowledged. But there is one crucial exception to this consensus: Mr. Reagan himself. He is beginning to move, slightly, away from his original January budget with its huge deficit, and its forecasts of more to come. But he still seems to think that it is basically sound--and anyway, the economy will shortly pick up and bring those deficits down. Just about everybody else, including close supporters, old friends and senior advisers, is telling Mr. Reagan that things aren't working out that way and interest rates won't come down until the deficits are demonstrably under control. Until the interest rates come down, there won't be any economic recovery. But Mr. Reagan isn't listening. He thinks that things will turn out all right if people just calm down and leave his tax cuts alone. He's dangerously wrong.
The arithmetic of the budget is pretty clear, and it compels an inescapable conclusion. The federal deficit last year was $58 billion. This year it will probably be around $115 billion. For fiscal 1983, the budget year now under debate, the best guesses now suggest about $165 billion. To get interest rates moving downward requires a reversal of the deficits' rising trend.
That means getting next year's deficit below this year's by a convincing margin--reducing it by perhaps $80 billion. For money on that scale, there are only three sources. Defense spending will have to come down well below Mr. Reagan's figures. Pensions now amount to nearly one-third of the total budget, and the increases in them will have to be trimmed. That includes Social Security. Since the cost-of-living increases in the 1970s rose a good deal faster than inflation, it is not entirely unfair to shave cost-of-living increases for two or three years.
The third, and most important, remedy is to raise personal and corporate income taxes. It was the excessively large tax cut last summer that created the present emergency. Any equitable solution now requires that the largest contribution come from a tax increase.
Senators and congressmen of both parties accept this logic. But they cannot proceed unless President Reagan accepts it as well, and pledges himself without reservation to support it. The president has sometimes suggested that Congress, as an institution, draft a budget of its own and then negotiate with him. That's absurd. Why in the world would the House Democrats take the lead in raising risky and unpopular proposals involving Social Security and taxes? They assume, altogether reasonably, that Mr. Reagan would only use their counter- budget against them in the coming election campaigns. Even some of the Republicans are apprehensive about inviting presidential attacks.
Mr. Reagan has to be an active co-author of any budget rescue. It's far from certain that a bipartisan budget revision, on the necessary scale, can be worked out in Congress. But it will never have a chance unless it is presented first at the White House, with Senate and House leaders present but Mr. Reagan himself standing in the middle of them and doing most of the talking.
If Mr. Reagan won't do it, there will be no revision. There may not be any budget at all. The deadlock will continue, with a rising probability of unpleasant consequences this summer as the present interest rates persist. Mr. Reagan still has an opportunity to change the course the events are following. But he hasn't got a great deal of time.