The Carter administration is planning to send Congress a tight "no-growth" budget next January that would cut $4 billion to $5 billion from social and construction spending but not cut defense outlays.
Officials say the $30 billion-or-less deficit the president pledged in his anti-inflation message Oct. 24 means he wants spending increased barely enough to offset inflation. There will be no "real" growth in outlays.
However, for a variety of reasons - including political considerations involving NATO and the strategic arms limitation talks - Carter has given orders to allow defense spending to rise to $123 billion in fiscal 1980, up from an estimated $112 billion now.
That means budgetmakers will have to find $4 billion to $5 billion to shave from other programs, partly by postponing projects and by holding down increases in others to below the pace of inflation. Some cuts will be proposed in "entitlement" programs, whose levels are set by Congress.
Officials haven't made final decisions on which programs will be affected. However, strategists say likely candidates include federal retirement programs, waste-treatment projects, highway maintenance spending, and changes in eligibility requirements for portions of the Social Security program.
Policymakers say they expect vigorous protest from Congress and from special-interest groups. Environmentalists already have severely criticized the president's decision to let federal agencies fill only half their present personnel vacancies.
Officials concede an increased risk now that Carter may not be able to hold his lid on the budget deficit, even with a tight spending plan for fiscal 1980, which begins next Oct. 1.
If the economy goes into a recession as a result of the president's dollar-rescue efforts last week, unemployment benefits could rise sharply - offsetting any economy measures the administration can hope to push through.
The "no-real-growth" target is tighter than officials had implied before. Until recently, policymakers talked about allowing spending to grow by 1 to 2 percent after adjustment for inflation - the same as Carter's budget last January.
The new figures are based on tentative plans to allow spending to rise about $530 billion in fiscal 1980, up from an estimated $492 billion this fiscal year. Revenues are projected at $500 billion to $506 billion, depending on economic conditions.
Budget planners say they won't try to eliminate major social programs to achieve their target, but only to propose a string of relatively modest cut-backs that together would "save $4 billion to $5 billion. However, that would require limits on some present entitlement programs.
Carter also hopes to push for enactment in 1979 of his hospital cost-containment legislation, which policymakers say would cut Medicare and Medicaid expenses. However, planners concede any changes most likely would not affect fiscal 1980.
Carter's decision not to hold down increases in defense spending stems from two factors - a desire to avoid seeming squeamish in the midst of the strategic arms limitation treaty talks, and pressure to fulfill an earlier U.S. commitment to beef up NATO forces.
There's some dispute within the White House on whether the NATO commitment involves all military funds or only those slated for the organization directly. So far, the broader interpretation has prevailed.
Officials caution, however, that despite the president's determination, the administration may have a difficult time in meeting the targets Carter is considering - if only because economic conditions may throw the budget out of whack.
Carter's spending and deficit targets are based on assumptions that the economy will grow at a respectable 3 percent pace next year, and that inflation will rise at the 6 to 6.5 percent rate the administration has set as a goal under the voluntary new wage-price program.
However, officials concede that these estimates are optimistic. Most economists now believe the economy will grow at a 2 percent rate or less next year, with inflation continuing at 7 percent or so. That would make spending levels higher and tax revenues lower.