THE CURTAIN RISES today on another dramatic scene in the continuing saga of the Great Budget Battle. Congress will once again be attempting to override a presidential veto. In case you have mislaid your program, the bill in question is the 1982 "regular" supplemental appropriation, which provides funds needed to keep many federal agencies running through the rest of this fiscal year.
President Reagan, appearing in his familiar role as Defender of the Fiscal Order, will maintain that the version of the bill passed last month by Congress is a "budget-buster." Congressional leaders, however, have tired of playing the fall guys. The matter at stake, they argue, is not how much money the government should spend, but who should have the final say on how it's spent.
In fact, as House Majority Leader Jim Wright says on the opposite page today, the bill passed by Congress would spend considerably less than the president requested. What the president doesn't like is not the size of the bill but what it would pay for. Congress decided to spend about $900 million more than he wanted on social programs and $2 billion less on defense.
This might lead you to believe that the action centers on the old guns-vs.-butter dilemma. But the $2.5 billion in extra defense spending that the president wanted was mostly for housekeeping items as well as some early starts on weapons buying planned for next year. Congress ususally rejects new program starts in the end-of-year supplemental bills, which are intended only to keep current programs running. It is hard to believe the Pentagon cannot cover such matters as travel and storage allowances out of the $200 billion already appropriated this year.
The president's decision to go to the mat again on a budget issue has, interestingly, earned him more enmity in the Republican Senate than in the Democratic House. Senate leaders naturally resent the president's attempt to characterize them as big spenders when they have provided not only support but leadership for larger measures to narrow the deficit. There is also irritation that the administration is pushing hard for still more defense spending.
If the veto override attempt fails, a hasty compromise will probably be put together to keep the government running and the troops in the field. The president will have scored another legislative victory while quieting the concerns of his most conservative supporters that he sold out on the tax bill. But he will have done nothing to improve his standing with Senate leaders -- and that may come back to haunt him when the next budget act comes to the stage.