White House and congressional budget negotiators have all but given up on reaching a detailed compromise and are resorting to target figures--in some cases even broad ranges of figures--in hopes of salvaging what they can from their month's labors, congressional sources said yesterday.
With their sights sufficiently lowered, negotiators reported progress--but hitches as well--in a 3-hour meeting yesterday; they seemed to be moving toward a mixed package of some specific proposals, some generalized target figures and some broad ranges of numbers.
They said the group plans to meet again Sunday in hopes of keeping the talks going until an agreement can be reached, possibly by early next week. Some questioned, however, whether the agreement will mean much, either to Congress or nervous financial markets, if the negotiators sacrifice too much specificity in order to reach a consensus.
"They're still hung up on the toughest subjects," especially the big benefit programs, said an aide to one of the Republican negotiators, who was said to have left yesterday's session in a pessimistic mood.
In an attempt to finesse these problems, the budget bargainers are exploring "general numbers and ranges of numbers" for many of the big budget categories like defense spending, domestic appropriations, entitlement programs and taxes so that the signatories are not committed to specific legislative actions, the aide said.
Asked why, he said, "To save face, I assume."
However, there is reportedly a dispute over where to be specific and where to be nebulous. For instance, some Democrats are saying that if Republicans want to protect military spending and the 1983 tax cut with nebulous ranges, Social Security should be afforded similar protection.
A "work sheet" used at yesterday's talks spells out a deficit range of $95 billion to $99 billion for next year and $24 billion to $35 billion by 1985--down from revised potential deficits of $182 billion for next year and $233 billion by 1985. It includes ranges of numbers for everything except tax revenues.
For defense, the range of proposed cuts for next year is from $4 billion (the administration's figure) to $6 billion (a Democratic figure), and from $23 billion to $33 billion over three years.
Tax increases of $25 billion next year, $35 billion in 1984 and $50 billion in 1985 were also included.
To get to the deficits that the proposal anticipates, there would have to be $10 billion in Social Security cuts ($38 billion to $44 billion over three years), to be outlined by the presidentially appointed commission that is studying ways to strengthen Social Security financing.
The negotiators, including Democrats and Republicans from both houses as well as White House chief of staff James A. Baker III and other presidential aides, swore themselves to secrecy after yesterday's session, suggesting that the talks were at a delicate stage.
But other sources said some progress was made on tax increases, including movement toward designating some specific tax increases, most of them relatively small and less controversial than the broad new energy taxes or income tax increases under study, for inclusion in an eventual budget compromise.
No final agreement was reached on taxes, however, and some Democrats stressed that there was no consensus on the figures mentioned in the "work sheet," saying they wanted substantially larger increases for 1984 and 1985. President Reagan's 10 percent tax cut for next year, which the president has refused to abandon, is still a major issue, a Democratic source said.
On such major budget categories as defense spending, domestic appropriations and entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, the Democrats reportedly want specific target numbers, while the Republicans want general ranges.
On the critical Social Security issue, Democrats have indicated they would consider benefit cuts only as part of a broader plan for strengthening the system and only with what one source described as "explicit concessions from the president."
There is reportedly considerable support for earmarking some general tax revenues for Social Security, although no decision was reached and such a move would not help reduce impending deficits. On the deficit target, there is reportedly little dispute. All sides say they are aiming at roughly $95 billion for next year. The problem is how to get there and, as one staffer put it, "how to make it look credible."
If the negotiating group winds up with a hodge-podge of specific proposals, general targets and ranges of numbers, and if the outcome is embraced by Reagan and House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), it will then be up to Congress to fill in the blanks, starting with budget resolutions and ending with specific legislation.
To give the package some teeth, the negotiators are discussing what has been described as "enforcement mechanisms" to assure that the target figures are reached. While no specific mechanisms were discussed publicly, one available tool is the "reconciliation" process, under which congressional committees were ordered last year to come up with $36 billion in spending cuts.