House Democrats and Republicans, shellshocked from the collapse of all their budget plans during a grueling session that lasted until early morning, fumbled yesterday through the wreckage in hopes of finding some way to pass a budget for the next fiscal year.
While aiming for a bipartisan consensus, which has eluded them in five months of searching, they agreed that the most likely prospect is a choice between plans drafted by the Democratic majority on the House Budget Committee and by Republicans with the support of President Reagan and conservative Democrats.
For the next round, the Republicans and conservative Democrats served notice that they will push for a fiscal 1983 budget resolution even more conservative than the one they backed unsuccessfully in the three-way contest that turned into a total wipeout early yesterday as the House, in a round of late night and early morning voting, successively shot down every budget plan in sight. The resolution, when agreed to by the Senate, sets revenue and spending targets for the fiscal year.
"We lost because we went too far to the left . . . ," said Rep. Delbert L. Latta (Ohio), ranking Republican on the Budget Committee. His comment contrasted starkly with Democratic claims that the Republican budget was "Draconian" in the severity of its impact on social welfare programs.
President Reagan added his own interpretation.
He accused the nominally Democratic-controlled House of "irresponsible action that the American people will condemn" and described Congress' budget-writing process as:
" . . . .the most irresponsible, Mickey Mouse arrangement that any governmental body has ever practiced."
The Democrats' position was less clear.
At a post-mortem session of the House Budget Committee yesterday that some called a "group therapy" meeting, Chairman James R. Jones (D-Okla.) suggested a split-the-difference compromise between budget plans offered by the Democratic majority on his committee and by the Republicans. It was greeted with little enthusiasm by the Republicans and conservative Democrats, who said they want a more conservative plan, and by some Democrats, who said it would be unacceptable to party liberals.
"You can't write a budget from the center--there is no there there," said Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), principal architect of a centrist plan that was framed as a compromise between the other two plans and fared worst in the voting early yesterday.
The House eventually may return to a bipartisan compromise, but "you probably have to blow out the ideological pipes first," Wirth said.
In voting yesterday, the Republican plan, the Budget Committee's plan and the moderates' plan all fell victim to a collapse of party discipline among Republicans and Democrats, with the ideological extremes in both parties coalescing to defeat everything.
Of the three, the Reagan-backed plan was the most conservative, cutting the most from domestic spending while raising the least in new taxes and, at least in its original form, cutting the least from defense.
The committee's plan cut the least from domestic spending and the most from defense while raising more than the other two in new taxes. The moderates' alternative fell in between, although it was closer to the committee's version.
The collapse was triggered by a revolt among conservative Republicans, who did not like the federal deficits in any of the plans and showed their disdain with a symbolic protest vote that set off a chain reaction, shattering all of the coalitions that had been so carefully patched together over the last few weeks.
The Reagan-backed plan was the first to fall, 235 to 192, with Republican leaders blaming a last-minute defense-for-Medicare shift of nearly $5 billion that shook the fragile foundation of their coalition of moderate Republican "Gypsy Moths" and conservative Democratic "Boll Weevils."
Then the moderates' plan, which had the only projected deficit of less than $100 billion for next year, went down, 289 to 137. A majority of both parties voted against it, including even many Gypsy Moths, for whom many of its provisions had been tailored.
Finally, the Budget Committee Democrats' plan was voted down, twice.
The first vote was 253 to 171 against a slightly amended version, including some sweeteners added on the House floor. The last vote came on the committee's original version, minus the floor amendments, which gave the House a final chance to choose between something and nothing. The choice was nothing, 265 to 159.
A melange of Republicans, Democrats, conservatives and liberals--including Congressional Black Caucus members angry at being ignored in the writing of Democratic budgets--combined to send the issue back to Jones' Committee to try to come up with something better.
Whether it can do so remained unclear yesterday.
Committee member Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) sized up the situation this way:
"What happened this week was a combination of things, strategies that went bad, a budget process that's gone sour, an economic situation that's disastrous and a political situation that's polarized" atop "a lack of leadership and the paralysis of fear."
Coalitions aimed at a politically centrist position collapsed and "the two extremes joined hands and ran away with everything," he said.
In this climate, Panetta continued, "members tend to think of survival, and that means voting 'No.' "
"Unless there is some leadership, from the president or from Congress, it's going to be very, very difficult" to get any budget passed, he added.
Jones' committee hopes to return from the Memorial Day recess ready to report out a new budget plan in time, he said yesterday, to give Reagan good news as he embarks in mid-week on a nine-day visit to four European nations and participate in an economic summit at Versailles and a NATO meeting in Bonn.
If the new effort fails, Congress may have to muddle along without a budget resolution, although the Senate could operate under guidelines of a Republican-drafted budget plan it adopted last week. The House, however, would have no enforceable targets for limiting appropriations or instructions to committees to produce tax increases and entitlement program cuts.
This could spell deep trouble for a debt ceiling extension bill that Congress must pass shortly to keep the government in operation. Without some movement toward deficit reductions, many members of both houses may be reluctant to vote for any debt-increase legislation.
It could also mean that Congress would again fund the government on a stop-gap basis with continuing resolutions and facing the prospect of veto showdowns between Reagan and Congress over money bills of all kinds.