House and Senate Republican leaders told President Reagan yesterday that Congress, dazed by the deficits that he has projected for the next few years, needs "running room" to revamp his proposed 1983 budget.
Reagan said that would be fine with him if it meant additional cuts in non-defense spending. But he seemed to rule out any reductions in the large military buildup he has proposed, and any revisions in the tax cuts he pushed through Congress last year--two of the main areas that Congress is eyeing for savings.
Asked by reporters if he would agree to reduce the 18 percent increase he has proposed for defense spending, Reagan said, "No, I feel very strongly about defense spending." He also said any trimming of the scheduled tax cuts this year and next would be "very counterproductive."
But while administration officials said "there's no plan here to compromise," the congressional leaders said they came away from their hour-long meeting at the White House with the impression that Reagan believes "there's got to be give and take and there's got to be compromise," as Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) put it.
They said they did not interpret Reagan's response as a rebuff. "He shouldn't turn tail at this juncture on what he just proposed," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), holding out hope for compromise as the first congressional budget deadline approaches in May.
In any case, the Republican leaders indicated after the meeting with Reagan that they intend to continue exploring bipartisan initiatives to put together a budget that Congress will approve, implying that Reagan's budget doesn't fit that description.
Complaining that many conservatives feel "pole-axed" by the big deficit projections, Michel said he plans to meet next week with House Budget Committee Chairman James R. Jones (D-Okla.) to discuss a possible bipartisan approach to reducing them. Similar meetings are also under way in the Senate.
This possible teaming-up with Democratic leaders like Jones to revise Reagan's budget contrasts sharply with the pattern of a year ago, when a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democratic mavericks pushed Reagan's budget through Congress virtually unscathed.
With Democratic conservatives complaining as strongly as Republicans about Reagan's deficits, the old coalition is a "shambles," said a congressional Republican aide. Asked about dealing with Democratic leaders, Michel said, "Well, I have no alternative."
Michel underscored his perception of problems the budget faces in Congress this year by suggesting that a budget resolution may have to go down to defeat "a time or two" in the House before a satisfactory draft can be worked out.
Right now, said Michel, the number of votes that Reagan's budget would get in the House "isn't high."
At the meeting, both Baker and Michel reiterated their interest in a possible budget alternative for fiscal 1983 that was advanced earlier in the week by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee.
Hollings' plan to freeze defense spending at current levels, eliminate cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other government retirement programs and reduce the planned tax cuts was denounced Wednesday by Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan as "absolutely ridiculous," setting off what one congressional GOP source described as unfavorable "shock waves" on Capitol Hill. Regan was reported to have criticized the Hollings plan again yesterday but in less vivid terms.
Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) joined Baker and Michel at the meeting and explained afterward that "we want . . . the running room on Capitol Hill to examine the budget, give it an independent look and perhaps come up with some better results." Laxalt's comment was significant because he is Reagan's closest friend and ally in Congress.
But White House communications director David Gergen said it was too early to talk of compromise. "There is no plan here to compromise," said Gergen after the meeting. "We're not sending those kind of signals. That was not the spirit of the meeting here today."
Reagan, asked later if he was disturbed by the congressional reaction to his budget, said, "No, because I know they're going home in a few days for a congressional recess and when they get home they're going to find out how much the people want what we have proposed."