AFTER MAKING heartening progress on the major components of a budget accord, congressional budget conferees bogged down on Friday over a few issues. Having come so far against heavy odds, budget leaders still hope that they can work out their remaining differences. But they realize further delay may only make it harder to line up the bipartisan support needed to pass and enforce a budget resolution.
Signs of disarray among those backing budget control have emboldened some House chairmen, backed by strong constituencies, to exert stronger resistance to restraints on spending in their areas. But the biggest impediment to compromise lies not in Congress but in the administration.
Publicly, of course, the president remains firmly committed to the idea of budget control. If pressed, he would probably even reaffirm his allegiance to a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget--so long as it applied only to his successors. But for some time his aides have been putting out word that the president has no respect for congressional attempts to restrain the deficit if Congress doesn't do it the way he wants. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger made that quite clear in a letter this week urging the Senate Armed Services Committee to ignore defense levels set in the budget resolution if they are lower than the president's request.
This defiance will make it very difficult for Republican leaders to line up their troops behind the emerging compromise. Democratic leaders will also find it hard to persuade their members to go along with restraints on domestic spending if it is clear that the administration won't budge on defense and taxes. If this happens, the carefully engineered compromise will fall apart. With it will go the chance for future budget control.
In deciding whether to go along with the budget resolution as currently outlined, both sides should recognize that it contains significant concessions in their direction. Taxes would be slightly higher than they would be under the president's budget, but the increase would not come close to offsetting the tax cuts already enacted. Defense spending would grow a bit more slowly, but the Pentagon would still get a hefty increment. Domestic spending wouldn't get much real growth, but several billion dollars would be set aside for recession relief.
Whether he recognizes it or not, the president has benefited enormously from congressional budget discipline over the last two years. Congress' tax bill last year set off the stock market rally that heralded the recovery. Further indications of congressional determination to control budget deficits will help keep the recovery going. Unaccustomed as it may be to the role, Congress has become the last line of defense against uncontrollable budget deficits.