A frazzled Senate Budget Committee yesterday shifted gears, scuttled a bipartisan compromise and approved, 11 to 9, a low-tax, high-deficit Republican budget that closely resembles one earlier approved by the White House.
Only a day after President Reagan went on national television to denounce any budget compromise that might jeopardize his tax cuts or military buildup, the committee's efforts to build a compromise on the basis of bipartisan cooperation collapsed in a cross fire of partisan recriminations.
Finally Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who had led the bipartisan effort, reversed course and dusted off an old GOP leadership plan that he had co-sponsored with Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), which the Senate rejected last week, 52 to 48.
In apparent hopes of picking up support from moderate Republicans who cast the deciding votes against it last week, Domenici reduced slightly its defense spending levels for next year. But other key elements, including Reagan's bottom-line demand for no major tax increases for the next two years, were left unchanged.
In an irony that will be sweet to the White House, the GOP leadership plan was approved only because of the absence of two candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sens. Gary Hart (Colo.) and Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.), who opposed it. Hollings was campaigning in New Hampshire, and Hart took off for Wisconsin shortly before the voting started after trying unsuccessfully to vote by proxy, aides said.
The budget as approved by the committee now goes back today to the Senate floor, where amendments, including a slightly different version of a bipartisan compromise rejected yesterday by the committee, are expected to be offered. It does provide for a tax increase.
A key question is whether the GOP moderates, or perhaps some conservative Democrats, will now vote for the Republican leadership proposal and help avert a stalemate. Six of the moderates met late yesterday and decided to support a variation on the bipartisan compromise, but refused to say whether they would vote for the leadership plan as a last resort.
The White House reserved judgment on whether it would accept the defense change in the leadership's budget, which would cut next year's after-inflation defense buildup from 7.5 percent to 7.1 percent. Reagan had originally called for a 10 percent increase. Reagan was described as pleased with the tax numbers, which would preserve his tax-cutting program.
But sources said Reagan reaffirmed yesterday at a Cabinet meeting that he will veto tax and spending bills he regards as excessive, regardless of how the budget battle turns out. The budget resolution mainly sets targets; individual tax and spending bills must then be passed to carry them out.
It was in the area of taxes that the leadership plan differed most from the bipartisan plan that had been drafted overnight by Domenici and the committee's ranking minority member, Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.). The leadership's plan would have required $8 billion in new taxes over the next two years; the Domenici-Chiles plan called for legislation this year to nail down $75 billion in new taxes through 1986, starting with $9 billion next year.
The leadership plan was approved on a nearly party-line vote, with Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.) joining all Democrats who were present in voting against it.
Approval came after the committee voted 12 to 8 to reject both the bipartisan compromise and a Democratic proposal for even bigger tax increases and less defense spending than either of the other two plans.
The poor showing of the bipartisan plan came despite calls last week from both Republican and Democratic leaders for cooperation to avoid a budget impasse. But, in the meantime, Reagan pressed Baker to hold the line against a compromise, and Democrats got angry at both Reagan and Baker, leading to a partisan standoff at the committee yesterday.
As the meeting began, Baker sent word through Domenici that he would support the compromise only if a majority of Republicans on the committee, meaning at least six, supported it. But Domenici could produce only five, and some Democrats demanded that Baker climb aboard before the compromise would get their votes, claiming Reagan would blame them for raising taxes unless the budget had a clear Republican stamp.
"I was under the impression Sen. Baker was the leader of the Senate, not the follower of it," complained Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), contending that the committee would be making "an idle gesture" if Baker wouldn't support its action.