During the desultory debate on the budget resolution in the House yesterday, a Republican accused the Democrats of shedding "crocodile tears" about the impact of cuts in the social programs.
The charge was indignantly denied. But what is not in dispute is that a good many Democrats celebrated the Republican budget victory as fervently as any member of the GOP.
At the price of being shown up once again by Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) when it comes to legislative artistry, the Democrats have preserved and perhaps enhanced the issue they want for the mid-term election campaign.
It is the issue of the floundering economy.
"Because we gave the president everything he asked for" in 1981, Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) said in closing debate, "three million more people are out of work, 58,000 businesses are in bankruptcy . . . and our country is in the worse economic morass in 40 years."
Wright and other Democrats believe that the budget passed by the Republican-controlled Senate and a Republican-led conservative coalition in the House will aggravate, not cure, the recession.
They believe it will make it tougher, not easier, on its business and human victims.
That belief cushions whatever envy they feel at Michel's latest demonstration that he is one of the most skillful strategists the House has seen in years.
After the late May fiasco, in which both Republican and Democratic budgets were voted down by the House, Michel stepped forward to attempt a rescue effort.
He missed by 26 votes two weeks ago, because he was caught in a cross-fire between "Gypsy Moth" moderate Republicans who could not stomach all the social program cuts and "Boll Weevil" and "Yellow Jacket" conservative Democrats and Republicans, who thought the deficits were still too high.
The GOP leader said publicly that his strategy was to turn "a few degrees to the right," and that is what he did. But he calculated with precision just how far he could turn without losing too many moderate Republican votes.
This time, unlike the May exercise, Michel and his legislative lieutenants were operating very much on their own. President Reagan, at a NATO summit in Bonn, called yesterday morning to say he was "holding his breath" on the outcome, and was given the names of half a dozen members to woo with overseas calls.
Vice President Bush, preoccupied with Washington meetings with Arab and Israeli diplomats, squeezed in a series of quick, low-key lobbying sessions with three small groups of wavering GOP moderates--nine or 10 in all.
But the hard work was done by Michel and Company on Capitol Hill, and the results were measured on the key roll-call on the budget amendment carrying the name of Rep. Delbert L. Latta of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee.
Although the cuts in Latta II were deeper in domestic programs than they were in the Latta I budget of May, only 15 Republicans--12 of them members of the informal "Gypsy Moth" caucus--bolted party discipline. In May, there were 20 GOP defectors.
On the other flank, Latta II attracted 46 conservative Democrats, while the milder, earlier version had lured only 21 defectors.
Part of the increased attraction to the conservatives was the promise of a slightly smaller deficit, achieved by deeper domestic spending cuts. Part was the belief, carefully fostered by the Republicans, that this was, as Michel said, "the best we can do," and that failure to pass a budget this week might really unhinge the nervous financial markets.
And part of it was the ill-concealed fact that, once the Democrats had failed again to pass a budget of their own, their leaders did not really try very hard to block Michel's and the Republicans' path to victory.
The agenda was reversed from the May exercise in futility. This time, Michel was given the advantage of offering the final alternative, while the budget option crafted by House Budget Commitee Chairman James R. Jones (D-Okla.) was served up as an hors d'oeuvre.
The Jones budget got 202 votes--31 more than he had mustered two weeks ago--but still fell by 23 votes. A House Democatic leadership aide claimed that the improvement showed "the strongest Democratic coalition since the 1980 election," and, in fact, some black Democrats, liberals and moderates who had boycotted the Jones effort last time, came around to supporting it yesterday.
But its defeat had been widely anticipated, and Wright had prepared the ground for Michel's eventual victory by saying he hoped "every member will vote for one budget or the other," rather than prolong the deadlock.
Many of the 55 representatives who had voted against all the major budget alternatives in May heeded Wright's advice and got aboard Latta II as the last train leaving the station.
The result was that Republican Michel celebrated another in his almost unbroken string of legislative victories in the nominally Democratic House.
But Democrats such as Wright see at least three long-term advantages from the outcome:
* They are relieved of the criticism from Reagan and others of being obstructionists, incapable of formulating their own alternatives but bent on blocking the Republicans from exercising their election mandate.
* They believe that when the next round of the budget battle is fought, starting next month, they will reap a political harvest. House committees must report by the middle of July the specific program cuts that will be necessary to meet the budget targets voted yesterday. Democrats believe, as Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) said yesterday, "There will be a bloodbath" over those cuts, and the blood will be on the Republicans' hands.
* Finally, the Democrats believe they can carry the issue to Republicans' districts this fall, with a clear legislative record that from beginning to end it has been Republican votes and Republican leadership that have shaped the nation's economic and budget policy. With a handful of exceptions, every Republican running for reelection this fall will have that record to defend.