Budget-making at a glance:
President's closest friend in Congress calls deficits "terrifying," urges defense spending cuts. White House says president "not inclined" to go along. Then Pentagon begins scouting for savings.
President says taxes will be raised only if there is "palace coup." Treasury secretary floats trial balloon for tax increases. President shoots it down. Then president says he will "look at" everything, including tax increases. NEWS ANALYSIS
"Familiar scenario," says Democratic senator. "Chaos," says GOP House member.
If you are confused, you are not alone.
Amid the swirl of conflicting pronouncements and headlines in recent days, not even President Reagan's closest confidants could say without fear of contradiction on a given day what the budget will look like or whether it will lead to compromise or confrontation when it reaches Capitol Hill later this month.
But, while recent events have shed little light on the budget itself, they have illuminated the extraordinary public posturing and political gamesmanship--or "blamesmanship," as Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.) calls it--that seem to dominate formulation of a federal budget.
Politics is playing a major role, increasingly influenced by the 1984 presidential elections and the expected 1984 showdown for control of the Senate. So is the enormity of projected deficits of more than $200 billion and their potential impact on the nation's battered economy, just as it shows some signs of reviving.
Also at stake is the delicate balance of executive and legislative prerogatives and influence: who will really be running the country for the rest of the Reagan era?
Overshadowing everything is the effort by members of the president's party, including White House aides and congressional leaders, to get the president to approve pragmatic budget revisions that have a fighting chance of winning congressional approval and paving the way for lower deficits.
But this would mean scaling back his huge military buildup, easing up on social welfare cuts and maybe even agreeing to tax increases, all of which fly in the face of the philosophical underpinnings of Reagan's presidency and conjure the specter of abandoned campaign promises.
Until last week, the conventional wisdom, shared by many Republicans and Democrats, was that Reagan would do as he did last year and submit an ideologically pristine budget that Congress would promptly rewrite to suit its own priorities.
There would be weeks if not months of negotiations leading to an eventual compromise, enabling Reagan to emerge as a man of principle and accommodation, with the added advantage of being able to blame Congress for anything that went wrong.
"He'll resist like crazy and then take a defense reduction that will be minimal, but much will be made over it . . . . We'll still have a huge deficit but he will have compromised," Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) suggested.
This may still happen. But the intensity of the pressure on Reagan last week to reflect congressional priorities in his own budget, suggested with an unusual degree of public force by his favorite senator, Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), appeared to send the administration back to the drawing boards, even though the budget was scheduled to go to the printers within a few days.
Reagan did not fare too badly when Senate Republicans led the way in rewriting his budget last year. He had to swallow a modest tax increase but got a hefty military spending increase along with further restraint in social welfare spending.
The situation is different this year.
The possibility of a Reaganite conservative coalition in the House evaporated with the 26-seat Democratic gain in the November elections, and Senate Republicans' willingness to take the political heat for Reagan may well be tempered by a fondness for political survival.
Not only are Democrats expected to make a strong bid to take back control of the Senate in 1984, but Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and Finance Committee Chairman Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) also are potential presidential candidates if Reagan does not run again. And Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who carried the ball on some tough issues last year, will be up for reelection in a traditionally Democratic state that ousted a Republican senator last fall.
Moreover, the White House is receiving blunt warnings from House Republicans.
"If he comes in high on defense and low on discretionary domestic programs, then most of his real allies will walk off on him," said conservative Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is helping lead a campaign from within the GOP for a freeze on defense and domestic spending.
Others are nudging Reagan in the same direction.
Finding commendable flexibility in Reagan after a meeting with him last Thursday, Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. (R-N.Y.) described the president as "a more complex man than he was--the sum of his presidential experiences and his experiences have been difficult ones."
As a result, said Conable, ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, "in some degree, he's tempered his enthusiasms . . . he tends to be more realistic in his dealings with members of Congress."
House Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) blames the Democrats for congressional paralysis on most issues, especially Social Security, but insists there must be more leadership on all sides. "On the budget, the move must be the president's," Lott said last week.
In addition to political concerns, there is alarm in both parties about whether the economic recovery is so fragile that it might not be able to withstand months of budget turmoil prompted by congressional rejection of the president's budget.
But Sen. Lawton Chiles (Fla.), new ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, said he has checked with leading economists and been surprised to find that "it's almost like the markets have accepted" that Congress will reject Reagan's budget and churn around a lot before producing one of its own.
Of more than passing significance is the fact that nearly all the pulling and tugging last week came from centrist-to-conservative Republicans, the mainstays of support for Reagan's economic program.
House Democratic leaders did not even enter the debate, concentrating instead on strengthening their majority on the Budget Committee in preparation for development of a traditionally Democratic budget for the first time since Reagan took office.
Otherwise, contended Obey, a former committee member who remains interested in budget procedures, "Democrats will be walking into a trap because they the administration will want to compromise with our compromise," which would then be compromised further in negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate.
Even Republicans concede that Democrats, who could not pass a budget during the last two years despite nominal control of the House, may be able to do so now that they appear to have actual control.
Some centrist Democrats and deficit-conscious Republicans worry that Reagan, with his reluctance to cut military spending or raise taxes, and liberal Democrats, with their Keynesian-based affinity for deficits during a recession, may have found common cause in the tolerance of big deficits.
"We've got two groups that say deficits don't count . . . . They come at it from different directions, but they wind up in the same place," Chiles complained.
"In the middle are folks who are struggling to get deficits down under $200 billion, and that isn't an awful lot of an achievement after all that pain," Panetta added.