President Reagan now plans to wait until after a meeting with Republican congressional leaders next week before deciding whether to endorse the House Ways and Means Committee's version of tax-revision legislation, administration officials said today.
The plan of waiting until after the Thanksgiving holiday follows Reagan's private decision last Friday to support the Ways and Means bill -- an endorsement that was withdrawn before it could be announced because White House aides had second thoughts.
White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, who is reportedly having qualms about the Ways and Means bill, and Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, who is urging Reagan to give it qualified endorsement, discussed the president's strategy on the bill in a meeting today in Washington, the officials said.
Regan informed Baker that a decision by the president most likely would not come until after the Tuesday meeting with GOP congressional leaders at the White House. The tax bill is one of the major items on the agenda.
The meeting could prove pivotal because many House Republican leaders oppose the bill produced by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.). They are expected to complain to the president. These Republicans are fashioning an alternative and may seek Reagan's endorsement.
At the same time, sources said Rostenkowski has recently told chief of staff Regan that the entire tax-revision effort -- the chief domestic initiative of the president's second term -- will collapse if Reagan does not endorse the Ways and Means proposal. Rostenkowski is said to have warned Regan that there is no chance the Democratic-controlled House will pass a Republican alternative and that his own package will die without the active support of the president.
This view is shared by some White House strategists who see Rostenkowski's effort as seriously flawed but the only way to move tax revision forward to the Senate. A House GOP alternative is "irrelevant" at this point, one official said.
Jockeying over the tax bill has intensified since Reagan returned from the Geneva summit and Rostenkowski's panel finished work late last week. The president reportedly selected an option proposed by aides that he give the Ways and Means version a nonspecific endorsement, but a statement announcing this was never issued because of disagreement among Reagan advisers.
The legislation has been sharply criticized by many business interests that would face higher tax bills. The legislation also has opponents within the administration from officials who fear it would restrain economic growth and business investment. One of those who is said to be deeply skeptical is Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Beryl Sprinkel, who has been asked by Regan to produce a quick study on the economic affects of the bill.
But some business interests favor the Ways and Means version, and they are also lobbying the White House. The Tax Reform Action Coalition, including such businesses as General Motors, IBM, Levi-Strauss and other large firms sent a letter to Reagan Tuesday endorsing the committee bill. The group hopes to meet with Regan Monday. Chairman Roger Smith of GM has already met this week with Baker and Regan.
House Republicans are not united in their opposition to the tax bill, however. Rep. Willis D. Gradison Jr. (R-Ohio) sent a letter to the president yesterday asking him to endorse the legislation. Without the president's support, the legislation will fail in the House and "effectively slam shut the door on tax reform for years to come," he said.
But there is also strong sentiment among House Republicans that the president should reject the Ways and Means version. One source said "99 percent" of the GOP leadership will speak out against the bill, and eight of the 13 Republicans on Ways and Means already have asked Reagan to reject it.
White House officials had said the president, who is spending the holidays at his 688-acre ranch near here, may consult with lawmakers by phone on the tax bill and other matters. He is due back in Washington Monday night.
Staff writer Anne Swardson contributed to this report.