A House Republican leader said yesterday that President Reagan is personally to blame for last week's potentially fatal blow to tax-overhaul legislation, further sharpening a bitter intraparty debate a day before Reagan is scheduled to meet with GOP members in an effort to keep the bill alive.
"In the final analysis the president bears the responsibility for what his administration does," said Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, one of the top-ranking House Republican leadership positions. "I don't think he can pass the blame off to his subordinates."
Reagan is expected to go directly to Capitol Hill today when he returns from a Fort Campbell, Ky., ceremony honoring the soldiers who died when a troop flight crashed in Canada last week. The president will meet in a large room with all House Republicans in a last-ditch effort to salvage tax revision, his administration's highest domestic priority.
House consideration was blocked last week by a Republican-backed move to defeat the rule for debate, meaning the bill could not be considered, and Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said the bill will not be brought up again unless the president can deliver enough GOP votes to pass it.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) said yesterday that he remained optimistic that Reagan will get the votes. "I have a great deal of faith in the president," he said on ABC News' "This Week With David Brinkley." "I want him to get into the trenches."
Administration officials said privately that they believe Reagan can muster enough support to get the bill to the floor, but they warned that Democratic defections might still defeat it.
Rostenkowski said he had no direct indications that Democratic support was wavering, but conceded that Democratic leaders would like to have 60 Republican votes as "a cushion" to cover "any slippage that might take place." Last week, O'Neill asked Reagan to ensure 50 votes.
But Cheney's unusual personal criticism, in a separate interview on the Brinkley show, suggested that Reagan's powers of persuasion may be facing a critical test before the embittered House Republicans.
"The president's wrong," Cheney said. "I cannot bring myself nor can many of my colleagues bring ourselves to the point where we would vote for a bill that the president himself admits is flawed . . . . They just bet on the wrong horse."
Reagan has been critical of some parts of the bill crafted by the House Ways and Means Committee, but insists that flaws can be corrected in the Senate. So far his arguments appear to have had little impact on House GOP leaders.
"If he tells me that he's prepared to veto the bill if it passes in its present form, he in effect is saying 'You vote for it anyway. You go ahead and cast your vote and ignore your responsibilities to try to improve the legislation,' " Cheney said. "I don't plan to change my position."
In an interview yesterday on CBS News' "Face the Nation," Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the No. 2 House GOP leader, said he also remained opposed to the legislation and it would be "very difficult" for Reagan to move Republican members without moving the leadership.
The remarks suggested the depth of the frustration among Reagan loyalists in the House, who say they feel they have been slighted by the White House since the 1982 elections gave Democrats solid control of the House. The simmering resentment boiled over last week when all but 14 of the chamber's 182 Republican members rebelled rather than accept a tax package that they consider destructive to the economy.
The bill's derailment shocked the White House, and prompted criticism of Reagan aides, especially chief of staff Donald T. Regan.
Cheney, however, said the president has no one to blame but himself. "He made the calls. He received the warnings direct from the leadership," he said.
"If you sat in a room around the Cabinet table with the president . . . and said to the president, 'Mr. President, you're in trouble on tax reform' and nothing happened, who would you conclude was aware of the situation and perhaps should have taken action?" Cheney said.
The Ways and Means Committee bill would cut individual taxes about 9 percent by lowering rates, although also doing away with a variety of deductions. The $140 billion tax cut would be made up with an equal tax increase on businesses. It is this sharp increase that has upset House Republicans.