President Reagan, claiming that stopgap funding for the government is "bad economics and bad management," called yesterday on Congress to return to Washington for a lame-duck session after the Nov. 2 elections to complete work on its regular appropriations bills.
Both Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said they remain opposed to the idea of a post-election session but reluctantly agreed to Reagan's request.
Baker told the Senate to be prepared to return Nov. 29.
"There's nothing you can do about it," grumbled O'Neill in reference to the tradition of honoring such presidential requests.
"I said to Jim Baker White House chief of staff James A. Baker III , you've never seen a special session with 75 people here," O'Neill continued. Moreover, he added, "everybody who has legislation kicking around here will want to bring it up."
Congressional aides noted that, while Reagan's request was limited to action on money bills, there is nothing to prevent Congress from taking up other matters, such as controversial "social issues" like abortion and school prayer that have bogged down the Senate for weeks and such other Reagan priority items as a balanced-budget constitutional amendment.
However, even some Republicans dismissed Reagan's request, which was contained in a letter to Senate and House leaders, as a campaign ploy to focus on his midterm campaign issue of getting spending under control. "It's a macho move," said one high-level GOP congressional aide.
Reagan's letter came as Congress stepped up its pace of action on appropriations bills but still remained far from enactment of most of its regular spending bills for the new, 1983 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
No more than a few, if any, of the 13 regular appropriations bills are expected to be passed and sent to the president for signature or veto before Congress plans to quit for election campaigning in early October.
This will require stopgap funding through a "continuing resolution," and O'Neill and Baker were talking in terms of having such a resolution last until mid-February or early March, O'Neill said early yesterday.
Reagan, however, said in his letter that "any continuing resolution should be for the shortest possible time."
Calling for passage of "responsible regular appropriations bills in a timely manner," he added:
"I have said before, and I feel even more strongly now, that attempting to run the federal government without a proper budget -- with a series of temporary continuing resolutions and the associated overall budgetary uncertainty -- amounts to both bad economics and bad management."
He continued: "The duration of the continuing resolution should be the minimum necessary to allow this Congress to resume and complete its work following the elections -- in a manner that fulfills the obligations of the budget resolution that this Congress has passed."
In talking with reporters, O'Neill suggested another possible reason for Reagan's request for a short-duration continuing resolution: the likelihood that it would provide less than Reagan wants for defense.
"You know what happened," O'Neill said. "The defense figures are so much lower than administration officials are pushing for that they don't want them."
The House Appropriations Committee last night approved a continuing resolution that would fund the Pentagon at fiscal 1982 levels, with a temporary ban on the start of any new projects or programs, until the Appropriations Committee approves a defense spending bill.
In effect, this would deny Reagan his big defense spending increase until the committee approves new funding levels. Its defense subcommittee indicated last night that it is scheduled to begin markup of such a bill on Sept. 28.
Most other programs would be funded at levels approved by the House or Senate or at the fiscal 1982 level, whichever is lower.
The committee included a termination date of Feb. 28 for the continuing resolution, but members indicated it might be changed, especially in light of the lame-duck session.
However, the committee rejected, 24 to 17, a request from Rep. Silvio O. Conte (Mass.), ranking Republican on the panel, to make the stopgap funding expire whenever the 97th Congress adjourns. Conte's request would require approval of new spending authority before the new Congress convenes in January.
Congress last held a lame-duck session in late 1980, after Reagan's election.
As the House Appropriations Committee was approving the continuing resolution, its Senate counterpart cleared four spending bills, including funds for the Agriculture Department, the Treasury Department and Postal Service, the Transportation Department and the District of Columbia.
All but one were reported to be within the congressional budget limits that the administration has said it would use as the yardstick for determining whether to sign or veto appropriations bills. The Treasury-Postal Service bill was said by committee aides to exceed the limit for outlays by $770 million.
In all, the House committee has approved six of the 13 appropriations bills, while the Senate panel has approved five. None of the bills has been approved by both houses. The House, meanwhile, began work last night on its $11.2 billion Transportation Department funding bill, and is expected to complete action next week. The measure is reported to be within budget targets.