President Reagan is considering bundling into one sweeping bill the billions of dollars in domestic spending cuts he will propose next year in an effort to force a single up-or-down vote in Congress, a senior White House official said yesterday.
A similar tactic was used in Reagan's first year in office, by far his most successful in cutting the budget.
David A. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, gave Reagan a list yesterday of possible cuts in domestic spending that have been termed Draconian by White House aides, together with some curtailment of the military buildup that was a conspicu- ous feature of his first term. While the president made no decisions, "he liked what he saw," an official said.
The White House would bundle the cuts together on the theory that they would thus be harder to vote down. Its strategy would be to cast the Democratic leaders of the House as "obstructionists" of deficit reduction if they refused to allow a vote on the one big bill.
"The elections showed that the American people do not want a tax increase," White House chief of staff James A. Baker III said yesterday. "If necessary, the president will go over the head of Congress and take his case to the American people to achieve his goals of budget cuts and deficit reduction."
Baker met yesterday with House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) and Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to discuss legislative strategy several hours after the president met for 90 minutes with a core group of advisers.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said after the budget meeting that Reagan "wanted to hear more details" before making decisions. But the budget goes to Congress early next year, and the president is expected to give Stockman further guidance within the next several days.
Reagan has ruled out a tax increase or cuts in Social Security to reduce the deficit, now estimated at about $200 billion for each of the next several years if no new steps are taken. He has also been protective of the defense buildup. Stockman's list was intended to show the president how deeply he would have to cut to move the deficit down to about $100 billion over three years, which his advisers have made their working target.
Stockman's list, which he read from a loose-leaf notebook, went beyond just trimming programs. It involves wiping out entirely such budget items as community development block grants, urban development action grants, the Job Corps, federal sewer grants, Amtrak, the rural electrification program and the Export-Import Bank. The filling of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would also be phased out.
In addition, administration sources said there would be cuts of varying degrees in such major areas as farm price and income supports, veterans' benefits, student loans and the civil service and military retirement programs.
Stockman would also trim military outlays by about $10 billion next fiscal year. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger has stoutly resisted such early cuts in his budget in the past.
The new Stockman proposal is well under the 14 percent military budget increase that officials said Weinberger was seeking, and one aide said the secretary made no secret of his displeasure at the recommendation during the meeting with the president. But that "wasn't exactly a surprise," the aide added.
The strategy the White House intends to pursue to obtain budget cuts differs notably from the one it is following on tax reform, administration officials acknowledge.
"We're going to have confrontation on spending and consultation on tax reform," said one White House official.
There are several reasons for the divergence in approach, according to administration officials. One is that there is a notable lack of enthusiasm among many Republican congressmen for a tax revision that does nothing to dent the deficit.
"It's not worth the political pain," one prominent Republican said earlier this week.
Another reason is that several tax-revision proposals are already in circulation on Capitol Hill in addition to the plan unveiled earlier this week by Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, toward which the White House has taken a hands-off approach.
"We have somebody with whom to negotiate on tax reform, but may not on budget cuts," an official said.
But White House officials said yesterday that they face a difficult mission in their effort to persuade the Democrats to accept an up-or-down vote on spending cuts, despite Reagan's ability to rally support on national television.
A knowledgeable Republican close to the administration said there are "no incentives" for the Democrats to cooperate and deplored a confrontational approach rather than a bipartisan one.
"There are going to be early test votes on the MX [missile] and on funding the contras in Nicaragua, and they need bipartisan support for that," the Republican said.