Negotiators for the White House and Senate Republicans yesterday said they were near general accord on deficit reductions despite continuing disagreement over Social Security, education and other critical issues.
On the particularly controversial issue of defense spending, there was inconclusive talk among senators about a compromise under which spending authority would grow by 3 percent after accounting for inflation during each of the next three years. Sources said no agreement had been reached last night.
Such a compromise would reduce the administration's planned outlays for defense in fiscal 1986 by $18.5 billion.
The Senate Budget Committee had proposed saving $21.5 billion by allowing the Pentagon budget to grow only to cover inflation.
As negotiators recessed in early evening, committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M) said they had made "a lot of progress" but were unable to finish their work.
Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman said "not a lot" of work remains. Negotiators said they plan to resume and perhaps finish work today.
After a meeting yesterday between President Reagan and congressional GOP leaders, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said there is a "good chance" that a plan will emerge before Reagan's California vacation and Congress' Easter recess. Both are to begin Friday and last 10 days.
However, it was unclear whether Reagan would agree to all aspects of the plan or have enough votes to pass the GOP-controlled Senate, with or without Democratic support.
Senate sources also cautioned that the results might fall short of actual agreement. One said it would be more like a "broad outline." Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) spoke only of completing "preliminary work" on a plan.
In many areas, including farm programs and defense, there were signs that the bargainers essentially would split the difference between Reagan's proposals and the alternative plan from the Senate budget panel, which the White House has said it regards as being too generous toward domestic programs and too tight-fisted on defense.
In general, Senate negotiators appeared to be moving toward Reagan's position, especially on domestic spending, with the idea of gaining his support, then worrying about finding enough votes to pass the package on the Senate floor.
Dole appeared to be pinning his hopes on persuading the president to back the results of the talks with sufficient enthusiasm to influence wavering senators.
"Hopefully, if the president gets behind it, he can create a wave for it, a big wave," Dole said.
While asserting that Reagan needs Senate Republicans as much as they need him if deficit reductions are to be enacted, Dole indicated that his immediate priority is winning presidential support.
"There's one guy at the White House and 53 Republican senators here . . . . I'd rather get one than 53," Dole said.
From the start, defense and Social Security have been among the biggest obstacles, and the negotiators appeared to be leaving them almost until last.
White House officials have indicated that Reagan might accept a defense-spending increase of 3 percent after accounting for inflation, about half of what he requested in his budget.
The Senate Budget Committee proposed zero growth, meaning Pentagon spending would grow only to cover inflation.
But the Senate Armed Services Committee is leaning toward 3 percent growth, and sources close to the talks indicated that it might be a suitable compromise, at least to move the issue to the floor.
The budget panel also proposed eliminating Social Security cost-of-living increases for one year.
But Reagan, wary because of Democratic attacks on his earlier proposals for Social Security cutbacks, has indicated that he would consider a benefit freeze only if he has strong bipartisan backing in Congress. As of late yesterday, negotiators reportedly had not addressed the Social Security issue.
As talks began yesterday, bargainers had tentatively agreed on farm-program cuts but encountered problems on student loans.
Both are areas of multibillion-dollar disagreement between the Senate and White House.
Although some farm-state senators were balking, the tentative accord on farm-program cutbacks would slash $14 billion over three years, or about halfway between what Reagan asked and the Senate Budget Committee approved.
But Sens. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), who ranks third in the Senate Republican leadership, and Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), chairman of the education, arts and humanities subcommittee, were resisting proposals from both sides for more drastic cuts in the student-loan program than those proposed by the Budget Committee.
In particular, Chafee and Stafford balked at Reagan's proposals to impose more stringent limits on aid amounts and income eligibility for guaranteed student loans.