House-Senate budget negotiations stood on the verge of collapse last night after an acrimonious, tension-filled session in which Senate conferees rejected a proposed compromise from the House and said they saw little hope of reaching an agreement.
At stake was six months of work to produce more than $250 billion in spending reductions to cut budget deficits in half over the next three years. Amid personal as well as political recriminations, both sides agreed that the talks had hit a low point and that the outlook for agreement was bleak.
"Frankly, everywhere I turn, I don't see a way to go. I don't believe . . . that there's much hope," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said as he ended the session by saying he would resume the talks when "we have something to talk about."
House negotiators pleaded with the senators not to break off the talks, but House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) acknowledged that he, too, was "a little despondent . . . a little pessimistic."
However, Rep. Delbert L. Latta (R-Ohio), ranking Republican on the House budget panel, emerged from a private meeting of House and Senate conferees last night saying he thought a resumption of the talks was possible next week.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said he was "disappointed that the Senate decided to pull away from the conference table" and added, "If President Reagan can negotiate with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Senate can negotiate with the House. Let's get back to the table."
The House on Tuesday offered to make $24 billion in additional domestic spending cuts over three years while moving closer to acceptance of the Senate and White House demands for a defense budget that would give the Pentagon increases next year covering the full impact of inflation.
The House offer was rejected as insufficient by the senators, who were still bristling over White House and House rejection of their proposal to freeze Social Security benefits, and who want the House to make more cuts in domestic programs.
In several hours of testy and often bitter haggling, House members accused senators of setting "moving targets" for spending cuts, and senators accused House members of following only those parts of the White House agreement that suited their purposes, such as providing a full inflation adjustment for Social Security benefits but not for the military.
Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) said the House offer was dictated by a philosophy of "what's ours is ours and what's yours is negotiable."
At one point labeling as "hogwash" an assortment of Senate charges that the House was flinching from serious cuts in domestic spending, Gray complained that White House and Senate Republican leaders keep upping the ante. "What I see . . . is the target being moved," he said tartly.
House negotiators repeatedly suggested that Senate Republicans were resisting an agreement because they had been spurned by the president. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) suggested that senators were trying to "make up for the deep political scarring" they got when the White House agreed to abandon the Social Security freeze. "We can't bind up those wounds at this conference," he added.
A major complication in the negotiations is fear on both sides that major concessions needed to win an agreement could end its chances of approval in either chamber.
The senators' position is delicate because their budget passed only by virtue of a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Bush, and many Republicans are angry at scuttling of the Social Security freeze after they cast politically risky votes to support it. House conferees' concern was reinforced by a caucus of House Democrats yesterday in which many members objected, some adamantly, to further cuts in domestic spending or increases for defense.