The Senate yesterday peacefully passed a White House-blessed housing appropriations bill as Congress and President Reagan, only recently at each other's throats over spending, seemed to be moving to avoid further clashes before Congress quits next week for the Nov. 2 elections.
Barring possible troubles with the huge stopgap spending bill that Congress must approve for the entire government by next Friday, congressional leaders who once feared that the pre-election session would end with a bang are now cautiously optimistic that it may wind up without so much as a whimper.
"Neither side is looking to pick a fight . . . . It may not be a conscious strategy, but hardly anyone wants a veto confrontation" before the elections, said a top Senate Republican leadership aide.
As for the big "continuing resolution" to fund the government after the start of the new fiscal year on Friday, there is a mounting sense on Capitol Hill, at least, that no one gains from holding the government hostage in fights over spending priorities, often involving relatively minor sums of money.
The White House did just that last year, but Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) said yesterday he believes the administration this year is "looking for ways to sign the continuing resolution , not to veto it."
Hatfield, who supported the successful congressional override of Reagan's veto of an omnibus supplemental appropriations bill earlier this month, said he senses that the administration is less keen to veto the continuing resolution than it was last year, when a veto stalemate closed almost the whole government for a day.
"Last year you could just sense the itch for a veto," said Hatfield. "I think that itch has been cured," at least in part by Reagan's veto loss two weeks ago and the possibility of another loss on the continuing resolution, added Hatfield.
Similarly, Hatfield indicated Congress, eager to get home to campaign, may move to accommodate Reagan to get the measure passed without any major hitches.
When Reagan called him yesterday morning to voice concern about committee-proposed reductions in U.S. troop levels in Europe, Hatfield said he told the president that that provision may be excluded from the continuing resolution in the interests of a "lean, clean" bill. This would leave the issue to be decided when Congress finally adopts a regular defense appropriations bill, perhaps not until sometime next year.
The housing bill, the first appropriations measure to pass the Senate and one of few that Congress may finally approve before it goes home, is another case in point.
The White House has indicated it can live with the $47.5 billion bill for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and 17 independent agencies, even though it exceeds Reagan's request by more than $6 billion, mostly in the area of subsidized housing. It is, however, within the congressional budget and, according to the administration's latest veto yardstick, thereby acceptable.
The House has made a similar accommodation in its version of the measure, which holds the door open for more housing spending than the Senate bill. To the extent that housing money, which is to be authorized later, pushes the bill over its budget limit, offsetting cuts would be made in other programs, Democratic appropriators have agreed.
In all, however, new housing money in the two bills -- $3.7 billion for the Senate and up to $9.6 billion for the House -- represents a sharp reduction this year on top of last year in the once-burgeoning program, which means Reagan has won much of what he wanted.
According to an aide to House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), the same can be said of the continuing resolution, which he described as modest by comparison with previous stopgap funding efforts.
"The administration's gotten 90 percent of what it wanted" in the resolution, and "by past standards, it's pretty darn close to what the budget requires," the aide said. "It isn't so much that the administration isn't challenging Congress; it's that the Democrats are not challenging the administration," he added.
Regardless of who blinked first, Reagan's request for a post-election session to continue work on money bills -- and a short-term continuing resolution to tide the government over until then -- is widely believed to have deflated most of the confrontation prospects.
"What's to fight over?" asked a Democratic senatorial aide. "A few more dollars for 75 days?" That is roughly the duration of proposed continuing resolutions.
But Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman listed nearly two dozen separate points of dispute in the continuing resolution in a letter to Hatfield earlier this week. The list led off with the level of defense spending, with the two houses about $30 billion apart as they approach a conference on the measure after the Senate acts on its version early next week.
Congressional leaders agree that defense spending levels could be a major problem. But if it can be resolved satisfactorily to the administration, "the rest shouldn't be too troublesome," an administration official said yesterday, indicating that the real fights over spending will come after the elections.