House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) agreed yesterday to seek approval in the lame-duck session of Congress beginning next week of a gasoline tax increase to finance a multibillion-dollar highway-repair and jobs program.
At the same time they cold-shouldered a proposal, under study by President Reagan, to advance next July's scheduled income tax cut to January in hopes of stimulating the economy.
While details of the jobs initiative have yet to be worked out, Baker told reporters after meeting with O'Neill that they will push jointly in the lame-duck session for a program "similar" to one advocated by Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis.
The Lewis plan calls for a 5-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax to finance $5.5 billion in highway, bridge and mass transit construction projects, creating an estimated 320,000 jobs. The federal tax is currently 4 cents a gallon.
The rare joint initiative by O'Neill and Baker enhances chances that Congress, under pressure from a 10.4 percent unemployment rate, will pass a quickie job-creating bill before the end of the year. It also puts heavy pressure on Reagan to climb on the jobs bandwagon.
"I think we can work something out, and I think the odds are good the president will support it," said Baker, implying that he intends to push the legislation even if Reagan doesn't endorse it in advance. Reagan has shown interest in the Lewis plan but has not taken a firm position.
In what amounted to a limited agenda for the three-week, post-election session, the two leaders also agreed to act on as many appropriations bills as possible and on trade liberalization provisions of the administration's Caribbean Basin Initiative.
O'Neill told Baker that the House will pass 12 of the 13 regular appropriations bills for the 1983 fiscal year that started last Oct. 1, all except the always controversial money bill for foreign aid.
But Baker said there is "no way" that the Senate will have time to complete action on all of the 12, which means that Congress will have to pass another big stopgap "continuing resolution" for much of the government.
Beyond the jobs and money bills, aides to the two leaders said the House will take up legislation to protect U.S. auto-making jobs and a housing authorization bill, while the Senate will consider a Baker proposal to permit Senate sessions to be televised. Other possible agenda items for one or both houses include bankruptcy, antitrust, immigration, coal slurry, regulatory reform and clean air legislation, they said.
Baker said they agreed to try to wind up the session by Dec. 15 or "Dec. 17 at the latest." Dec. 17 is the deadline for passage of a new stopgap funding bill for agencies that have not received their regular appropriations from Congress.
Baker was noncommittal on whether Congress could complete action on the huge defense appropriations bill that Reagan wants from the lame-duck session, but other congressional leaders, including Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), have expressed doubt that it will be passed before Congress goes home for Christmas. That would leave defense in the continuing resolution.
As for advancing the income tax cut, which Reagan has called "appealing," Baker said he and O'Neill discussed it only "very briefly" and left little doubt about its prospects. "I think we've already had the debate," he quipped, adding, "The speaker showed no enthusiasm for it and I really have serious doubt it could pass even if it reached the Senate." On jobs, O'Neill indicated he intends to press in the House for a second employment bill. But he did not spell out any details, and Baker made it clear he doesn't intend to push a second jobs bill in the Senate.
On the highway jobs bill, however, the skids were being greased. Apparently under pressure from O'Neill, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Public Works Committee Chairman James J. Howard (D-N.J.) planned to meet to resolve a jurisdictional dispute that has been holding the bill up for weeks. "I don't think we're going to have a problem on jurisdiction and I don't think we're going to have trouble on the tax," Howard said yesterday.
Meanwhile, Lewis bluntly warned the trucking industry that it stands to lose proposed changes in truck width and weight limits for trucks if it opposes the gas tax proposal. In a speech to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in Orlando, Fla., Lewis said, "We see no reason for trucks to rip up our highways and not pay their fair share."