President Reagan last night blamed the policies of past Democratic administrations for mounting federal deficits during his administration and called for a "truly bipartisan effort in the national interest" to resolve the budget crisis.
In a nationally televised speech in which he accepted no personal responsibility for the nation's troubled economy, Reagan called on Americans to persuade their congressmen that "this is no time for politics as usual -- that you, too, want an end to runaway taxes, spending, government debt and high interest rates."
The president said he would attempt to "forge the beginnings of an acceptable budget initiative" in a series of meetings, starting today with Republican participants in the budget negotiations that collapsed Wednesday. Reagan said he would meet Monday with the full GOP leadership and would also "consult with responsible members of the Democratic Party in the Congress to make this a truly bipartisan effort in the national interest."
The president and his Democratic opponents alike appeared anxious to be perceived as bipartisan and open to compromise. Responding for the Democrats on national television immediately after Reagan had finished his 17-minute address, Rep. Richard Bolling (Mo.) took an even more conciliatory tone.
"The problems in America are not Republican, they're not Democrat, they are American problems," Bolling said. " . . . If it's turned into a partisan rat race, it will be very, very difficult for anybody to win."
Neither Reagan nor Bolling, who represented House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) in the failed negotiations for a budget compromise, gave ground on their actual positions last night. But their remarks were noticeably less partisan in tone than those of Democratic congressmen and White House officials earlier in the day off camera.
O'Neill had referred to Reagan's proposals as "a raw deal" and White House chief of staff James A. Baker III depicted the president as a great compromiser who had been blocked by partisan opposition.
"There is no question we went the extra mile," Baker said. "The other side offered no alternative."
After his speech last night Bolling told reporters that he had not mentioned the "real reason" for failure of the negotiations, which he said was that "the president is more of an ideologue than many of his leaders" in Congress.
But in their televised appeals both Reagan and Bolling reflected a perception that is creeping into both Republican and Democratic voter opinion surveys. This recognition, as one administration official put it earlier in the day, is that "people don't care who's to blame; they want solutions."
Reagan spent much of his speech recapitulating the budget negotiations and describing himself as ready to accept "a workable alternative." He repeated the statements made the day before by Baker that he had gone a considerable distance to achieve a compromise.
The president demonstrated last night, as he has in several recent speeches, that he is especially sensitive to the issue on which polls show him the most vulnerable -- the question of whether his programs are fair to the poor and disadvantaged.
"There has been an insistent drumbeat aided by special interest groups charging that our budget would deprive the needy, the handicapped and the elderly of the necessities of life," Reagan said.
The president labeled his critics "well-intentioned but also misinformed" and repeated his frequent statements that his proposed budget for 1982 increased by $32 billion over the previous year.
But Bolling said that it was on this critical issue of fairness that the negotiations had come apart.
"The key element is fairness," Bolling said. "If we're going to have an enormous increase in defense, everybody in the country should help do it, the rich and the poor alike. Our criticism of the tax bill was that it was very much geared to the benefit of the rich. Our criticism of his spending cuts were that they were very much geared to hurt the middle class and people below the middle class in terms of income."
Reagan described the ideological chasm differently.
"Apparently, the philosophical difference between us is that they want more and more spending and more and more taxes," the president said. "I believe we should have less spending, less taxes and more prosperity.
Despite this rhetoric, both Reagan and Bolling said that a compromise was necessary to avoid what the congressman called "incredible deficits" in the future which both Democrats and Republicans have described as destructive to any economic recovery.
But the difficulty of attaining this compromise was attested to by O'Neill after the two speeches. Referring to the president's speech as "partisan," the House speaker said he didn't think that Reagan's appeal would have the effect on voters it did a year ago.
In 1981, Democrats from the South and West in districts carried heavily by Reagan defected and created what Reagan then referred to as "a new bipartisan consensus" on the administration's budget and tax bills. Yesterday at the White House administration officials talked hopefully of reviving such a coalition.
Those Democrats considered receptive to the administration compromise will from now on be referred to as "responsible Democrats" -- the phrase Reagan used last night.
But Bolling and other Democrats expressed skepticism that Reagan, whose standing in the polls is much lower than it was a year ago, could recreate the same coalition.
"I don't believe the solution to this problem this year is the kind of partisanship that prevailed last year," Bolling said.
At the White House earlier in the day Baker acknowledged that the administration task was more formidable this time because of probable Republican defections in the House. Last year the GOP held solid on nearly every key vote; this year moderate Republicans from the Northeast and Midwest are considered less likely to toe the party line.
The most sensitive issue for many of these Republicans and their Democratic counterparts is a reduction in Social Security cost-of-living increases, which was one of the proposals discussed by the budget negotiators. Both Reagan and Bolling went out of their ways last night to avoid any mention of this proposal.
Reagan is a masterful television speaker but his usual smooth delivery ran into some rough spots last night. The president appeared momentarily flustered when he tried to mark a graph with a felt-tip marker which wouldn't write. He interrupted his speech to say he couldn't make "a big enough mark" and commented a moment later that "my pen is working."
Near the end of his 17-minute speech Reagan formally endorsed a pending Senate amendment calling for a balanced federal budget. He embraced the concept during the 1980 campaign and again at his March 31 news conference.
The amendment would not actually require a balanced budget, but it would make it far more difficult for Congress to vote deficit spending measures. A three-fifths vote would be required to pass an unbalanced budget, except during a war or national emergency, and tax increases would be tied to growth in income.
"Only a constitional amendment will do the job," Reagan said. "We've tried the carrot and it failed. With the stick of a balanced budget amendment, we can stop government's squandering, over-taxing ways and save the economy."
But this would be a long way in the future, by anyone's reckoning. The amendment would require ratification by three-fourths of the states if it is approved by Congress.
Reagan said that projected deficits at current levels of spending would be $182 billion for 1983, rising to $233 billion by 1985 "if we do nothing about reducing spending."
The reason that a budget compromise is needed, Reagan said, in a low-keyed summary of the toughest problems facing the administration, is that the mounting deficits are undermining the recovery long predicted by the president.
"The most essential thing is to send a message to the money market that we -- Democrats and Republicans -- alike can agree on reducing the deficit and continuing to hold down inflation," Reagan said.