White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, contemplating another confrontation with Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), is pushing to reverse Senate plans to delay final action on President Reagan's tax-overhaul package until next year.
Officials said Regan has been talking of a campaign by the president to build public pressure on the Senate to stay in session long enough to join the House in passing the measure before adjournment this year.
A nationally televised speech is one option under study. If all else fails, Reagan could call the Senate back into session to act on the measure, officials said. However, the Reagan White House has previously contemplated confrontations with Congress on other issues and then backed off, which it presumably could do in this case as well.
After leaders of both chambers confirmed Wednesday that final action is virtually impossible this year, administration officials expressed fear that the delay could entangle tax revision with pressure for tax increases that is expected to mount as debate begins early next year over deficits in the fiscal 1987 budget.
Some speculated that Dole, who has made no secret of the fact that he is more concerned about deficits than tax overhaul, may seek to use the president's tax code proposal as a vehicle next year for tax increases to help reduce deficits.
Dole has not suggested inclusion of tax increases in the president's package, but his endorsement of a deficit-cutting plan that included modest tax increases as well as Social Security cutbacks contributed to friction with the White House earlier in the year.
"We are mightily ticked off at Dole," a senior White House official said in reference to the agreement between Dole and House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) to try to send Congress home for the year by Thanksgiving even if action has not been completed on the tax measure.
"This doesn't give us Republicans anything" if the House approves the measure and the Senate puts it off until next year, as appears likely under the Dole-O'Neill plan, the White House official said.
O'Neill's agenda calls for House approval of tax-revision legislation by some time in November. Dole has said action could be completed by the end of the year only if the House sent the bill to the Senate by Oct. 15, contending that it would take seven to eight weeks for Senate action and the two chambers to iron out their differences.
Dole has blamed the House for delays and has disputed administration arguments that postponing Senate action until next year jeopardizes passage because 1986 is a congressional election year. He noted that major tax legislation has often been passed in election years, including 1982 and 1984.
Disputing Dole's contention that time constraints rule out Senate action this year, presidential spokesman Larry Speakes said Friday that the Senate does not need to wait for the House to finish to begin moving. He suggested, instead, that the two bodies work in tandem on the measure.
"We think it's entirely possible to pass the bill this year and it should be done," Speakes said.
Underlying the dispute is a curious set of political imperatives under which the Democratic-controlled House appears to have a far greater sense of urgency about acting on Reagan's tax plan than does the Republican-run Senate.
O'Neill, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and other House Democratic leaders are eager to keep Reagan from running away with the tax revision issue and, more importantly, are fearful that he will capitalize in a big way politically from any delays in the House. So action on the measure this year has become a top priority for House Democratic leaders.
In the Senate, however, the Republican majority is nursing wounds from its budget battle with the White House this year over taxes and Social Security. And, with 22 Republican-held seats at stake in next year's elections and continued GOP control of the chamber in doubt, Republicans are reluctant to bow to White House priorities that do not coincide with those of their constituents. Few say their constituents are demanding action on the tax code.
Moreover, lawmakers in both chambers -- along with outside experts -- are skeptical of administration claims that consideration of the measure in an election year jeopardizes its chances of passage.
"Politically, I don't think it makes any difference one way or the other, although economically it would be better this year because of the uncertainty from waiting," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), who has pledged to act this year if possible.
Others say consideration in an election year may be more of a help than a hindrance to eventual passage, especially when cuts in tax rates are involved, as they would be for most voters under Reagan's proposal.
By moving in an election year to impose tax changes that will take effect later, Congress would get all the political credit without any of the economic risk, political scientist Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said. And, he said, the closer to an election the better.
"People want to know what you have done for us lately . . . this year, not last year," he added.
What may change in 1986 is the extent of administration control over the contents of the tax legislation. Some lawmakers say an electioneering Congress is less likely to follow the lead of a president when it may mean trouble back home. Others say that, election year or not, administration control is strongest in a tight time frame, especially with a fixed deadline such as adjournment for the year, and tends to weaken as time drags on and other forces intervene.
In light of this, the tax bill could be drastically affected if, as many lawmakers expect, concern over budget deficits and foreign trade competition continue to overshadow tax revision in voters' minds. The tax bill could be dramatically reshaped to include tax increases and import levies that Reagan adamantly opposes -- or it could become so burdened with extra baggage that it collapses.
Moreover, symbolism can be as important as substance, suggesting another reason for the White House push for action now.
"You have an administration that hasn't had a tangible victory in '85," Ornstein said. "They need one. They need some momentum heading into 1986."