One of them wants $2 billion spent immediately to finance what President Reagan derisively calls "make-work" jobs. Another accuses the administration of ignoring the hungry. A third charges it with shortchanging mass transit.
A bunch of wild-eyed, big-spending Democrats? No.
What Reagan is hearing with increasing frequency is heresy in the choir of the faithful: a rising demand for government action on the domestic front from the Senate Republican class of 1980, the mainstay of his tax-and-spending-cut victories of the past two years.
"We lost some of the stars in our eyes because we watched the same president who started off in the right direction refuse to make the mid-course corrections that needed to be made," said Sen. Mark Andrews (N.D.), one of 16 Republican senators elected in the 1980 Reagan sweep.
"Instead of being innovative, we saw him with his feet frozen in concrete, his head in the sand, whichever way you want to look at it," he grumbled in an interview last week.
Not all are as critical as Andrews, whose somewhat cranky streak of prairie populism--with a farmer's vested interest in feeding the world--sets him apart from the start.
But just as Andrews lectures the administration for cutting back food programs, Republicans Dan Quayle (Ind.) prods it to help create jobs, Alfonse M. D'Amato (N.Y.) tongue-lashes it for cutting back on transit funding and others are voicing more independent views on issues ranging from defense to day-care centers.
In their own different ways, responding to constituent needs intensified by the recession, they are asserting a social welfare role for government that the administration--with Republican congressional support--sought to shrink over the last two years.
As a whole, the Class of 1980 is still tilted heavily to the right, and most members can be counted on to back Reagan on many litmus-test issues of loyalty to the administration. It still has ideological purists such as Sens. Jeremiah Denton (Ala.), John P. East (N.C.) and Steve Symms (Idaho), but the center of gravity is shifting more toward the few who stood out from the start as pragmatists, such as Sens. Slade Gorton (Wash.) and Warren Rudman (N.H.).
In retrospect, the Class of 1980 was probably never as robotic as it appeared, especially in the somewhat envious Democratic rhetoric about the discipline of the new GOP majority in the Senate in 1981.
In their campaigns and early months in office, these Republicans were caught up in Reagan's momentum, as were most other Republicans. Many had not held legislative office, and even those who had served in the House had not done so as members of a majority party with leadership responsibilities.
With the leavening of experience came the shock of the long recession, intensified by stubbornly high interest rates, both of which have only recently begun to abate.
For many of the new Republican senators, the Reagan economic program lost some of its political gloss as inflation declined but most other indicators of economic health failed to rally. Their mood soured further when budget deficits, which most of them had campaigned enthusiastically to eliminate, soared beyond historical precedents, fueled in part by the recession and in part by the administration's tax and defense-spending policies.
Among those whose attention was riveted by the recession was Quayle, whose home state of Indiana was an early and severely crippled victim.
"I certainly did not expect in 1980 to see unemployment at 10 1/2 percent . . . and staying around 10 percent through the middle of 1984," he lamented recently. "I think most of us who come from the viewpoint that there's a certain risk of over-government stimulation, of over-involvement of the government, are reluctant from a philosophic standpoint to get into so-called job-creating programs. But we don't have any choice. We are in a very tough situation."
Reluctant or not, Quayle has plunged in.
Last year, he cosponsored with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) the Job Training Partnership Act and helped get a reluctant Reagan to support it. This year, he helped lead the parade of jobs bills with a program that includes public service jobs--which generally fall under Reagan's category of "make-work"--for the short run as well as several longer-term initiatives aimed at helping states such as his that may never fully recover their economic health.
"There's simply got to be a national employment strategy," said Quayle, acknowledging that "when you say that, all of a sudden you get called a socialist, a central planner."
Quayle said he sees the government's role as limited but essential. "If we have a government that just says 'no,' 'hands off,' a pure laissez faire kind of approach, it's just simply not going to work in the present economic and political environment," he explained.
Quayle acknowledged that Indiana's suffering has influenced his thinking, "no doubt about it." But he also speaks with the ardor of a true believer, a kind of political missionary within his own party.
"I feel this a government employment strategy is the only answer . . . . I think that in our party there's a lack of a voice to talk about employment and the government's role in it," said Quayle, who comes with good credentials as an administration supporter. According to a tabulation by Congressional Quarterly, no other member of the Senate's Class of 1980 had a higher record of support for the administration last year.
What jobs creation is for Indiana's Quayle, transit is for New York's D'Amato and nutrition is for North Dakota's Andrews.
D'Amato went so far as to suggest in a recent Appropriations Committee hearing that the administration's continued pruning of transit aid undermines economic recovery in the interests of making an ideological point.
"If transit systems are forced to assume more cuts in operating assistance, our efforts to revitalize the economy, particularly in our urban centers, will be seriously hurt," he asserted.
Andrews speaks with no less fervor about nutrition programs, on national and international levels.
"People abroad are much more impressed by the fact that Americans can produce enough food to feed ourselves with a considerable amount left over than by the fact that we've got a man on the moon or that we can blow the world up 10 times over with atomic weapons," he said.
As for domestic food aid, he contends that it takes about $400 to feed a pregnant woman compared with $40,000 to take care of a disabled child.
"If you don't want to do it on the basis of humanitarianism, if you're too flinty-eyed and tough and uncaring to do it that way, then, dammit, you'd better do it on the basis of watching the dollar sign," Andrews said.
Andrews figures he and the White House got different readings from the 1980 elections: "As far as I could see, people in 1980 were saying restructure the government so the government can help us. I'm afraid that's a far different signal than some of the people over at the White House got."