Thrice-burned, triply cautious. That is the attitude most congressional Democrats have toward the ongoing negotiations with the Reagan administration on a possible fiscal 1983 budget compromise.
"There's been tremendous concern from the very beginning that these negotiations are a trap," said House Budget Committee member Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.). "They extract concession after concession, and then, at the last minute, either the president walks away from the deal, or they make a demand they know we can't accept . . . . Either way, there's a tremendous risk, they can make Tip O'Neill the fall-guy."
Panetta's comment is typical of the skepticism with which most Democrats view President Reagan's expressed desire for a bipartisan solution to the budget impasse that has shrouded chances for economic recovery since last winter.
Many on Capitol Hill were opposed to the negotiations in the first place. More were ready to declare them at an end last week, when "showdown sessions" produced no semblance of agreement.
What has kept the negotiations limping along is, first, a concern about the economic implications of a stalemate--a threat of higher interest rates and an even more prolonged recession. A close second in motivation is the fear that if the Democrats are the first to walk away from the bargaining table, Reagan will, in fact, make them the scapegoats.
But there are a lot of Democrats who wish their party's representatives weren't there.
A Democrat who managed to move from the House to the Senate last year, even as Reagan carried his state, said in mid-week: "I can't believe what's happening. Two months ago, we had this issue all to ourselves. Reagan had sent up a budget no Republican, let alone any Democrat, could endorse. The condition of the economy was his responsibility. Now, through his shrewdness, we're going to end up with our fingerprints all over the budget and the economy. And those were our issues."
Early on, there was talk among some House Democrats of adopting what one of them called "the rope-a-dope" strategy: Muhammad Ali's technique of leaning back and letting the opponent punch himself out.
According to a House leadership aide, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) initially favored this approach: tell the president that the job of revising his universally unacceptable February budget, with its looming $100 billion-plus deficit, was something he and the congressional Republicans would have to undertake. The Democrats would pass judgment on their handiwork.
Rostenkowski still carried the scars of negotiating the 1981 tax cut with the White House, only to have the president make his own deal with the "Boll Weevil" Democrats and then beat Rostenkowski on the House floor.
Other Democrats went through the same embittering experience on the budget and reconciliation bills and on the interim-financing measure whose veto by Reagan caused the one-day government shutdown last fall. Thus, the thrice-burned, triply cautious slogan.
"The only reason--the only reason--they are even negotiating with us," said a House leadership aide, "is that they can't put together the solid Republican robot vote or the Boll Weevil alliance this year, and they know it. Otherwise, they would not be talking to us."
In confirmation of that fundamental fact, the Boll Weevils on Thursday brought their budget ideas, not to the White House but to Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). Their coordinator, Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.), explained why: "I don't know of any votes in our group for the president's budget. The deficit is just too large. And we disagree with 35 percent of his cuts."
Despite the altered situation and the opportunity it presented to avenge some of the 1981 wounds, O'Neill approved the negotiations. Asked why, an aide said: "The pressure really came from the Budget Committee guys--Jim Jones Chairman James R. Jones of Oklahoma and the rest. They feel a responsibility, not to help Reagan, but to keep the congressional budget process alive."
But O'Neill hedged his bet from the start by naming House Rules Committee Chairman Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) as his personal representative in the bargaining. In the past, Bolling has been an outspoken critic of Jones, accusing the Oklahoman of selling out important Democratic causes.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), the man Bolling backed for the budget chairmanship 18 months ago against Jones, said publicly late last week what Bolling was probably telling O'Neill privately.
"I don't think the administration ever intended to deviate very much from its original proposal," Obey said. "I have almost no faith in their good-faith bargaining. They are trying to make it appear that agreement is close, so they can then accuse the Democrats of getting cold feet and reneging . . . . I don't mind compromising, provided you can save something of value, but the package they are offering is a horrendous, outrageous package.
"I don't want us to do what we did last year--fuzz our product by concession after concession, in an effort to get close to them, and have the public lose sight of where we're coming from. I think it's time to insist on first principles."
O'Neill has taken that advice on at least one "first principle," making it clear that he will not accept any reduction in Social Security benefits--present or promised--as part of the agreement.
If O'Neill's own instincts did not provide sufficient safeguard against any weakening on that front, the messages to his office would guarantee it. An aide said the speaker has heard from "Democratic officials all across country, saying, 'Don't concede anything on Social Security.' "
Pollster Peter D. Hart told Democratic congressional candidates Wednesday that the Democrats now enjoy a tremendous advantage--60 to 16 percent--on the Social Security issue. "Reagan has no credibility on the issue," Hart said, because of the benefit changes the president proposed last year. "If the Democrats go along with any changes, Democrats will have no credibility either."
But Rep. Tony Coelho (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, assured the candidates that would not happen. "The American people are not going to lose Social Security. And we Democrats are not going to let the administration take away that issue from our party."
The Democrats may hold onto their Social Security issue, but many Democrats worry that the negotiations are still full of political peril. "I've felt for six weeks that the Democrats are being drawn into a trap by Reagan," said one-time Carter pollster Patrick J. Caddell, who advises many Democratic candidates.
This budget is going to be a bitter pill," said a former O'Neill aide, now outside government. "Tip's got to find a way to insist that it has a Republican label on it, knowing that Reagan, with his command of television, can easily make him the fall guy. It's a tough spot to be in."
And then he added a thought that no congressional Democrat has forgotten: "They've outsmarted us, and sprung the trapdoor on us, before."