Even as President Reagan was presenting his economic proposals to Congress last night, Senate Republicans were working to grease the skids for his budget cuts by packaging them in a one-shot bill that could clear its first major legislative hurdle by Easter.
But the fast-track plan ran into resistance among Democratic leaders in the House, who complained that it would short-circuit congressional committees and lock Congress into spending cuts before their implcations could be fully explored.
Committee consideration is imperative, said House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who said: "You don't perform plastic surgery on a child's face before you consult its mommy and daddy."
The Reagan administration's strategy apparently is to rely on the Republican-controlled Senate to maintain the momentum of its budget and tax-cutting drive by making what amounts to a preemptive strike before opposition can mobilize.
Both Senate and House budget leaders are talk- about resorting to a little-used device called "reconciliation," under which Congress can order its committees to come up with specific savings by cutting established programs. The process, intended to reconcile spending with budget goals, was devised in the 1974 Budget Control Act. It was not used until last year, when Congress -- attempting to contain its skyrocketing budget deficit -- imposed more than $8 billion worth of savings on itself.
But there is resistance, especially among House Democratic liberals to precipitous action that could make it more difficult to defend their favored social programs.
"Haste makes waste," said House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neil Jr. (D-Mass.) in cautioning against what he called the "very unrealistic" Republican timetable.
"Tip doesn't want to rush, but Tip doesn't want to obstruct," observed Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), after discussing the issue with O'Neill and concluding that House Democratic leaders and Senate Republican leaders are not on an irreversible collision course.
Baker said he also will seek to work with Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) in deciding how much of the cuts should be attempted immediately in the reconciliation bill, and how much should be deferred until the 1982 budget resolution is taken up later this spring.
As Baker sees it, the Senate should be able to finish action by Easter on a package of "reconciliation instructions," under which Congress directs its various authorizing committees to make specific program cuts. Depending on the degree of House cooperation, congressional committees could make their designated cuts and Congress could finish the whole process by summer, he said. Summer, he added, is the "outside limit."
House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Jones (D-Okla.) anticipates a summer windup, too, but under a somewhat different scenario, according to aides. Instead of considering the spending cuts as part of an amended budget resolution for fiscal 1981, as the Senate plans, Jones would tie them to the first budget resolution for 1982, thereby accommodating the committee consultations that O'Neill and others want.
Baker indicated yesterday that the Senate might consider this approach, if as Jones has indicated, it involves a speedup in considering the 1982 budget.
The reconcilation process has stirred opposition among many liberals, as well as turf-conscious committee chairmen, because it diminishes the power of the committees that in many cases gave birth to the programs that would be cut. It gives extraordinary power to the relatively new budget committees in recommending cuts that other committees have to make, subject to final approval of both houses. "This is an extraordinary proposal," Baker told reporters in discussing the Senate plan, "but these are extraordinary times."
The House Ways and Means Committee plans to begin hearings on Reagan's tax plan next week, and both Senate and House budget committees will start hearing administration witness today on the subject of spending cuts.
An aide to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V Domenici (R-N.M.) said it is conceivable that the committee could finish its recommended package of reconciliation instructions by March 9, meaning the package could go to the Senate floor by the middle of March. But the aide said speeding up the process hinges on the adequacy of data supplied by the administration, and Baker seemed to anticipate a somewhat slower schedule.
Senate Republicans appeared to have the cooperation of one key Democrat -- Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee -- on their strategy for spending cuts, although not for Reagan's tax proposal. Hollings said he thought the one-shot reconciliation package was "a very sound approach," and predicted that the committee could finish its work by mid-March. Generally, Senate Democrats were complaining more -- at least intially -- about the tax cut proposal than they were about the spending cuts.
"If we're going to be the majority party again," said Hollings, "we've got to do what the majority wants . . . and that's cutting spending."
Both Senate Democratic leader Byrd and a number of House Democrats predicted a Democratic alternative to Reagan's 10 percent-a-year tax cut, but prospects for a cohesive Democractic approach to spending cuts were less clear.