Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), quoted yesterday as describing President Reagan as "perplexed and confused" in a meeting with members of Congress Wednesday, said she was referring to the president's feelings about "members of his party deserting him on tax reform."
With all but 14 Republican members defying their president, the House dealt a major, unexpected blow to tax revision yesterday, sending Democratic leaders and the Reagan administration scrambling to pull their forces together for a rescue attempt.
Legislators voted 223 to 202, with 164 of the 182 House GOP members voting against the president, to defeat the procedures by which the House was to consider a sweeping overhaul of the tax code. Democratic leaders and administration officials said a replay of the tax-overhaul battle may come on Friday.
At the White House, the president's aides reported that he was "steamed" over the desertion of his fellow Republicans and some were vowing political retribution if the votes cannot be turned around. Key administration figures were working into the night to reverse the defeat. One congressional aide said he was told late last night that "the White House is buying and selling faster than anyone's seen it happen."
But it was still not clear how large a stumbling block the House action had created to the chances for passage of tax revision, this year or at all. Democratic leaders said they would not try again unless the president produced 50 GOP votes in favor of tax overhaul.
"If the president can't deliver these votes . . . in almost a forthwith manner, then tax reform will be dead," said House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.). "If the president really cares about tax reform, he will deliver the votes. Otherwise, Dec. 11 will be remembered as the day Ronald Reagan became a 'lame duck' on the floor of the House."
The procedures vote caught the White House by surprise, at first confusing the president and his strategists. Late in the day, after its implications had been explained to him, Reagan was angry, his aides said.
"The president is steaming, he is highly ticked off," a senior White House official said. "He sees it as one thing for a Republican member to vote his convictions and another thing to lead a vote against him."
The official said members of the GOP leadership who organized the revolt would be asking for help in next year's election, adding, "The president ain't going to forget and he ain't going to forgive."
White House officials did not anticipate the vote on the procedural issue, although they recognized that the vote on the bill itself would be close. And no one explained to Reagan the details of what had happened before he met with 18 Republican House members, many of whom voted against the White House on the procedure while saying that they favored the bill itself.
Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), a strong supporter of the bill who voted against the procedure that would have permitted it to be considered, said Reagan appeared "perplexed and confused" at times during the meeting and talked mostly about the necessity of moving the bill forward without mentioning the procedural vote.
Reagan took a similarly bland approach in a seven-minute speech to a group of supporters of the legislation. The president said it was "imperative" to move the legislation forward and added, "If we let tax reform die, I think it will be years before we can bring it back."
But after this speech, Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III and White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan informed Reagan that his tax bill was in danger of being defeated before it ever reached a vote on its merits. This prompted the president to send Baker and Regan up to Capitol Hill requesting another vote on the same procedure Friday. And the president was described as "dead serious" and "angry" during a call to Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).
Several congressmen who met with Reagan yesterday said they were prepared to switch their votes to accommodate Reagan. One of them, Rep. William Carney (R-N.Y.), said many GOP members had voted against the procedure to "send a message" that Republicans were upset at their exclusion from drafting of the tax legislation.
House Republican leaders, who had been unanimously opposed to the principle tax bill, which was a Democratic measure, said the vote represented fundamental opposition to the specifics of the legislation. They insisted they were not acting against the wishes of their president, who has asked lawmakers to vote for the Democratic package or the Republican bill in order to get tax overhaul to the Senate.
Major bills like the tax-revision measure go the House Rules Committee before they are taken up by the full House. The Rules panel sets the terms for the debate, including the amount of time and the number and type of amendments that can be considered. Before the House could begin debate on the tax bill, it first had to accept the rule approved by the Rules Committee, which allowed only two amendments to be offered. One was the Republican tax bill; the other was on political campaign contributions.
"We're supporting the process of tax reform. We interrupted it briefly to get a better rule, to get a better package to the floor," said Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.). Said Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.): "We have an opportunity to defeat this rule, to kill this snake before it gets out of the hole."
The reason used by many Republicans to object to the procedure for consideration of the bill was that it did not permit a vote on the effort to eliminate a provision that would make federal retirees pay taxes immediately on part of their pensions. Now, they receive the tax-exempt portion in the first years of retirement and get taxable benefits later.
One GOP legislator after another spoke against the provision on the floor as the rule was being considered, prompting surprise among Democrats that Republicans were suddenly so concerned about federal workers. The real motivating factor, they suggested, was deep Republican distaste for the bill and limitations it would impose on tax breaks for interest groups.
"The copious tears for federal employes were just a fraud," O'Neill said.
In fact, members of both parties seem to have grave doubts about the tax legislation. Both the GOP and Democratic bills would reduce tax rates and then cut or eliminate deductions and credits.
The vote defeating the rule was almost as much a surprise to Democratic leaders as it was to the president and his forces. They had anticipated a close vote on the Democratic tax legislation itself, although the Republican substitute to be offered first was given no chance of passage. Rostenkowski and others pointed out that the Democrats had produced almost exactly as many votes as predicted, while the GOP defections were far greater than anticipated.
Democrats were not planning to ask for a rule that would permit a vote on the federal-retirement provision if the bill came up again, on the grounds that any sign of concessions to special interests would cost more support than it would gain. As many as 10 to 12 additional Democratic votes might be found to support the rule, but that would still not be enough to gain passage without large-scale GOP conversions, Democrats said.