The "deep disappointment" which President Reagan expressed over a Senate Budget Committee vote to trim his military buildup was directed by White House officials yesterday at Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, blaming him for taking an uncompromising position that turned Republican senators against the administration.
"Cap cost us the committee," said one White House official. "He just refused to give the senators a list of priorities. The big problem was a delay in getting Cap to sign off on anything."
The 17-to-4 vote by the committee to approve a 5 percent increase in military spending after inflation rather than the 10 percent demanded by Reagan touched off a new round of second-guessing and recriminations in the administration over a strategy for rescuing the president's embattled defense proposals.
Immediately after the vote, Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) exchanged sharp words with Weinberger in a telephone conversation, sources said. But these comments were no harsher than the ones made by White House officials about Weinberger in their assessment of what had happened.
However, Weinberger was unyielding in the face of both the defeat and the internal criticisms, which he said were not shared by the president.
"Others can worry about tactics and negotiating games," Weinberger said in an interview. "Somebody has to tell the nation what's needed. The president has done that, and I've done that."
While White House officials were privately faulting Weinberger, spokesman Larry Speakes was publicly blaming the media for the administration setback. He said Congress was responding to a public informed by a press that was not giving the administration's defense programs "a fair shake" or reporting accurately about efforts to trim waste in Pentagon spending.
Speakes told reporters at the daily White House news briefing that there has been "a steady drumbeat of negative thought, mainly emanating from you and your colleagues in the press corps." He said his comments reflected Reagan's sentiments.
But behind this public position, there was simmering dissatisfaction in the White House about the way the defense budget vote, the first of 1983 in the Republican-controlled Senate, was handled.
While Reagan has always at the outset taken a hard line on critical negotiations, he often has moved in at the last moment to strike a compromise that preserved much of what he wanted. This time, with Weinberger refusing to yield, the president remained instransigent until it was too late to strike a deal.
Reagan did call Domenici minutes before the vote, but sources said he simply asked the budget chairman not to cut him back to a 5 percent increase.
The call was late and ineffectual. Domenici scoffed at the administration for not presenting him with any options, and several White House officials suggested yesterday that Reagan might have won a 7 percent increase from the panel easily if the president had made a deal only 24 hours earlier.
One reason he did not move quickly was that Weinberger was calling the shots instead of the president's chief legislative tacticians, chief of staff James A. Baker III and his deputies, presidential assistant Richard G. Darman and chief of legislative liaison Kenneth M. Duberstein.
Hours before the vote Reagan reportedly was close to endorsing a proposal by Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.), a staunch administration ally on defense issues, for an 8 percent increase. This was opposed by Weinberger.
Sources said that less than an hour before the vote Weinberger was still wrangling with Darman and Duberstein over what should be offered to the committee as a compromise. By the time the president called Domenici, the GOP senators had become so angry at White House tactics that they rebelled even against the Tower amendment.
For two years the defense spending issue has been the crucible of conflict within the White House. Baker and Darman, often in concert with Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman, have fought vigorous internal battles with Weinberger over the proper level of defense spending.
This time both the president and Weinberger appeared so adamant in behalf of the full 10 percent increase that little effort was made to modify the proposal in negotiations with Congress. In retrospect, said one administration official, had "the professional mechanics" led by Baker and Duberstein taken charge, they would have achieved more than Reagan was given by the committee.
Weinberger stood firmly behind the strategy he had advocated, saying that "we have many, many months before the final action is taken."
"This is a preliminary vote on a non-binding resolution," Weinberger said yesterday. "You shouldn't make up a defense budget on the basis of unhappiness with the secretary of defense because he won't tell you that the nation needs less than he thinks it needs."
The committee vote came at a time when the administration is facing a number of key votes on national security issues. And there were those at the White House who were concerned that supporters of the nuclear freeze and opponents of the MX missile would be emboldened by the resistance of GOP senators to Reagan's defense budget.
Within the White House, this is likely to produce new conflicts, between West Wing officials headed by Baker, Darman and their allies and Weinberger and national security affairs adviser William P. Clark, who has moved forcefully in recent weeks to guide the president on what Clark's critics regard as a militant course.
Clark and Weinberger have the advantage of sharing a viewpoint that is considered almost identical to the president's on these issues. On the other hand, Reagan also likes to win, and the track record of Baker and his deputies in securing legislative victories through compromise is a formidable one.
What White House officials on all sides of the issues decided to do yesterday was go home. One official said that no new strategy had been agreed upon and that everyone had decided to "cool it over the weekend."