YOU CAN HARDLY be expected to follow the budget game without a program. The following paragraphs attempt to outline the stages that are likely to be important in the next several months, and the tactical positions that seem to be developing.
On March 31, the continuing resolution expires. You may recall that Congress was never able to agree on several of the 1982 appropriations bills and, in the final convulsion last fall, kept the money flowing with a compromise that extends only through the first half of the fiscal year. It's likely that both houses will vote for a simple extension, but the measure covers the controversial areas of health, education and welfare, and it's possible that enough deficit-fearing senators will balk to block passage.
A more likely source of trouble is the matter of the final budget resolution setting spending limits for the current fiscal year. In passing it last fall, Congress simply ignored the fact that actual spending is running at least $40 billion above its legally binding limit. Now, if the budget process is to be kept intact, Congress must adopt a revision that approves an uncomfortably large deficit for 1982.
Congress, however, also needs to approve a first budget resolution for the next fiscal year--the one that's the subject of the current quarrel with the president. In the Senate, the target date for this event is March 31; in the House it's April 15. That doesn't leave much time for a great deal of work, if Congress is to come up with a specific proposal that differs substantially from Mr. Reagan's.
Last year, as the result of close negotiations between Reagan administration officials and Republican senators starting right after the election, the budget process got off to a fast start. This year, the administration went its own way and congressional support for the Reagan budget is currently nil.
If all goes as planned--and much may not--the congressional alternatives will face their first tests in the April votes on the budget resolution. If there is strong bipartisan support for the alternatives-- and if the administration is still sitting on the sidelines--the next play may well come when, sometime in May, federal spending pushes the federal debt over the limit currently set by law.
Failure to raise the debt ceiling would cause a chaotic shutdown of many government operations and possible panic in the financial markets. House and Senate leaders see the debt ceiling bill as an opportunity to turn the tables on the administration, forcing it to accept the budget and tax changes that Congress wants--just as the administration forced Congress to accept further budget cuts by closing down the government last fall. One possible danger here is the temptation to overload the debt ceiling bill with too many conditions to be passable. Another is a simple collapse of support for any budget, between the people who won't vote for the spending cuts and those who won't vote for the deficit.
Despite the acknowledged perils, momentum behind a congressional alternative is currently strong. Voters are genuinely worried, and many Republicans --who worked diligently to advance the administration's program last year--are stung by the president's current strategy of lobbing brickbats at them from the safe distance of his western tour. More important, responsible people in both parties realize, as the administration apparently does not, that the alternative is a stalemate over the budget--and, for the country, that is the greatest danger of all.