When President Reagan asked impatient Senate Republicans last year to give him more time to come to grips with forecast soaring budget deficits, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) went along, figuring Reagan would address the problem when 1982 rolled around.
"Well," she said after hearing Reagan's State of the Union speech last week, "it still hasn't been addressed."
After one week back in town, the Congress that trotted along in virtual lockstep with Reagan last year is stumbling around in search of marching orders. Critics on the left and right are getting bolder, and the patience of the Kassebaums is wearing thin.
The warning is loud and clear: Reagan is risking losing control of Congress by subordinating economic problems to his "New Federalism" program to transfer responsibilities and resources to the states. "Nice but basically irrelevant," was the way one prominent Republican House member summed up the president's speech.
As a result, many Republicans fear that Congress, while probably far from open revolt, may be headed for drift and acrimony that could tarnish the image of Reagan and the Republican Party just as they head into the midterm congressional elections in November.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) says he expects few if any of Reagan's economic proposals to be adopted before the elections, and Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. (R-N.Y.), ranking minority member of the House Ways and Means Committee, says he sees the prospect of more noise than substance. A session dominated by "high honk," as Conable sees it.
"Even more than that, there is the danger that Reagan will lose the initiative," according to Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.), who fears that Reagan, by tolerating huge budget deficits into the foreseeable future, is enabling Democrats to "stage a preemptive strike on the issue of fiscal responsibility . . . as incredible as that may seem."
To hold down deficits over the next few years, many congressional Republicans are pushing for restraint in defense spending and some substantial revenue-raising measures. But Reagan balked in his State of the Union message and has given no signs of agreeing to more than modest steps to close tax "loopholes" in the budget that he will submit to Congress Feb. 8, leaving a deficit for fiscal 1983 that will approach $100 billion.
Armstrong, for one, considers this a prescription for political disaster: "If the Republican Party gets in the position of apologizing for huge deficits--and we're getting dangerously close to it--there isn't a distinctive role for the Republican Party in American life."
Others may not go as far as Armstrong, but nearly all Republican congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) put higher priority on deficit reductions than Reagan apparently does.
Large as it may loom in the minds of Reagan's troops on Capitol Hill, it wasn't just the specter of big deficits that spread dismay and frustration among them as they returned from their six-week recess.
In more than a dozen interviews with Reagan's conservative Democratic as well as Republican supporters, there was a fairly consistent theme: Reagan remains popular and people want to give his program a chance to work. But they want him to address their immediate economic problems, too, and there is a limit to their patience that is probably measured in months and may not last through November.
The concerns cited by members of Congress ranged from unstable farm prices and farm foreclosures to the closing of urban employment service offices as unemployment lines lengthen--problems arising largely out of the recession and high interest rates.
"The criticism is that he did not address the 'state of the union,' which is high unemployment, high interest rates and high deficits," House Budget Committee Chairman James R. Jones (D-Okla.) complained.
These concerns are aggravated by fear that Reagan's economic program is building a reputation as favoring the rich and the Pentagon at the expense of everyone else.
Noting that House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) hammered away almost all last year at Reagan as the champion of the rich, Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) lamented last week that "Tip may have lost the legislative battles, but he may have won the partisan war because a lot of people are saying now that Reagan is for the rich."
The problem for members of Congress is that, even as their constituents give Reagan more time for his program to work, they will be called on in the meantime to vote on such no-win issues as massive deficits, more painful spending cuts and another rise in the debt ceiling, which was just raised past the trillion-dollar mark late last year.
In fact, the debt ceiling--which probably will have to be raised again in May instead of September as originally planned--may turn out to be one of the real flashpoints of the session. "The likelihood right now is that we may not get it the first time around," said a Senate Republican leadership source.
Whether Congress will move into the vacuum--or whether the administration itself will try to fill it--is not yet clear.
From Republicans as well as Democrats, pressure is growing to put new limits on planned spending increases for the military, with Baker suggesting that a cut of $5 billion to $10 billion would not damage the president's defense buildup effort and might be approved by Congress.
There also is strong sentiment for closing more tax "loopholes" than Reagan has proposed, including halting the sale of corporate tax breaks, and possibly some other tax initiatives to help reduce the deficit. However, a rollback of the huge individual tax cut that Congress approved last year is still viewed as unlikely.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), joined by Baker and others, has cautioned that tax increases are probably impossible without Reagan's active support. But Dole pointedly suggested last week that, if economic conditions don't improve in three or four months, congressional leaders may have to press Reagan to push for tax increases.
And, he said, if "push comes to shove," Congress may even have to reexamine its decision last year to "index" the tax code to take account of inflation.
Moreover, Armstrong, for one, isn't all that sure that Reagan won't change his mind or, if he doesn't, Congress won't take the initiative. "History does not say it's likely, but these are unprecedented times," he said.
As Dole, Domenici, Armstrong and others see it, the problem is compounded by the fact that Congress will have little incentive to make the $30 billion to $35 billion in spending cuts that Reagan is expected to propose in his budget if it doesn't see a balanced budget, or at least sharply reduced deficits, in its near future.
"Why should I vote to make hard, painful spending cuts to reduce the deficit from $105 billion to $100 billion?" asked a Senate Republican the other day. "The question among voters will be, 'What in the world is a Republican doing voting for a $100 billion deficit anyway?' "
There is another potential problem, involving Reagan's proposed program transfers to state and local governments. The transfer proposal assumes substantial further cuts in discretionary social programs that many legislators, Republicans as well as Democrats, contend have been cut enough already.
One of few consolations for the Republicans is that the Democrats, with some trying to outdo Reagan as budget-balancers and others looking back to the New Deal for inspiration, do not appear much closer to a consensus this year than last year.
Many Democrats, still searching for a way to appear responsibly different without seeming to be irresponsibly obstructionist, are skeptical about talk of a dramatic Democratic "alternative." The Democrats, said Armstrong, are "the one reason why I retain my optimism."