The Democratic-controlled House returned from its summer recess yesterday with bad news for President Reagan: Both House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Republican leaders indicated that Congress could well defy White House legislative priorities for the remainder of the year.
Contending that Reagan "doesn't give a damn on any issue out there," O'Neill said national support for administration policies is slipping and warned that the president risks defeat in Congress on two critical issues: taxes and trade.
O'Neill told reporters there is scant public support for Reagan's tax-overhaul plan and warned that Reagan must campaign harder to build momentum for its final passage, especially in the Republican-controlled Senate.
He also said Congress is likely to pass "some kind of trade bill," despite Reagan's objections to protectionist legislation. O'Neill said people don't think Reagan "gives a damn" about loss of jobs because of import competition. Later he broadened the characterization to cover other issues and said he agreed with the assessment.
Republicans were kinder but not much more encouraging.
Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, said GOP lawmakers are at odds with the White House over priorities and are "worried that we're headed for a very difficult couple of months" as Congress winds up work for the year.
While the White House is talking about tax overhaul and a veto strategy to hold down government spending, Republican lawmakers want Congress to concentrate on farm problems, trade protections and deficit reduction.
Although Reagan has given tax reform top billing for the remainder of the year, "I think most members are finding it's pretty well down the list with their constituents and what they heard was basically negative," Cheney said.
On trade, Cheney said the administration has to develop a "positive alternative" to fend off protectionist legislation. "You can't beat something with nothing," he said, adding that he has never seen so much interest in trade legislation.
A House Republican leadership source said House and Senate GOP leaders are expected to meet shortly to talk about a common strategy on these issues. Asked if confrontation with the White House is possible, the aide said, "The potential is clearly there."
The restiveness among House Republicans follows a revolt by Senate Republicans on budget and related issues before Congress recessed in early August, thereby jeopardizing Reagan's most reliable bastion of support in Congress.
Senate Republicans have shown considerably more interest in deficit reduction than tax reform and are also pushing for trade restraints.
The White House, apparently sensing the spreading unease among GOP lawmakers, continued yesterday to emphasize the president's personal popularity in polls in order to make a case that congressional Republicans will profit more politically by following Reagan than by challenging him.
"We are dealing from a position of strength . . . on the popularity side in the White House . . . and we have a unique opportunity to have a strong fifth year," said presidential spokesman Larry Speakes in releasing Gallup Poll data showing that Reagan's popularity has risen since his second term began. All other presidents elected to a second term since World War II have seen their popularity decline after reelection.
Reagan's popularity has risen to 65 percent from 62 percent in January, compared with an average 13-point drop for Presidents Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon over the same period.
Asked about poll results that show less favorable response to Reagan's policies, as opposed to his personal popularity, Speakes said, "He didn't get to 65 points with a song, a dance and nice smile. He got there because cumulative acceptance of his program is deep and widespread, 49 states deep. It's 65 percentage points -- an unheard-of and unprecedented postwar popularity for a president."
But Republican lawmakers, with constituent complaints still ringing in their ears, remained unconvinced that voters are as enthusiastic about Reagan's policies as they are about his personality.
"It would be a mistake to fall into the trap that, because he's so popular as a person, that this automatically translates into support for all his policies," said Cheney, who previously served as chief of staff for then-President Gerald R. Ford.
While the House officially returned yesterday, it is not expected to get down to major business until Monday, when the Senate reconvenes. The agenda between then and the end of the month is expected to be as heavy as Congress has seen in such a short period in recent years.
It includes passage of all appropriations bills for the 1986 fiscal year starting Oct. 1, enactment of a new debt ceiling that is expected to top $2 trillion and reauthorization of several major programs that expire this fall, including farm supports. Sanctions against South Africa, trade legislation and a final defense compromise also come early on the agenda.