For each of the past several years, President Reagan has sent a new budget to Capitol Hill, and Congress has promptly pronounced it DOA -- dead on arrival.
This year, with the drama over the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced-budget act beginning, the early reaction is different: Most Republicans as well as Democrats have declared the administration's budget DBA -- dead before arrival.
"If it's last year's budget with another $15 [billion] to $20 billion in cuts added to it, with no major policy changes, then it clearly won't work," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), reflecting indications of what the budget will contain. "It can't fly, and it won't fly."
Asked if he agreed, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said, "Almost everyone agrees on that." House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) was even more emphatic. "It's cold turkey, done, finished, dead, gone," he said. "They might as well just save the paper."
The fiscal 1987 budget that Reagan is scheduled to submit to Congress Feb. 3 is expected to include spending cutbacks of at least $50 billion to meet the $144 billion deficit target of the recently enacted Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislation to force a balanced budget by fiscal 1991.
More than half the savings are expected to come from recycled domestic cutbacks that Reagan proposed and Congress rejected in past years, such as elimination of the Small Business Administration and federal subsidies for the Amtrak rail passenger service. Leaks indicate the rest will be made up from a variety of equally controversial new cutback proposals, including "privatization" of government activities ranging from sale of petroleum reserves and power authorities to abandonment of agricultural extension services and shutdown of the Interstate Commerce Commission.
The budget is considered virtually certain to include a defense-spending increase of at least 3 percent above inflation and restoration of funds cut from Reagan's military buildup. Just as certainly it will not include a tax increase, White House officials say. Thus, the burden of deficit reduction would be put on domestic programs, which Congress will want to protect, especially in an election year.
Although the prevailing opinion in Congress is that such a budget won't be taken seriously, some disagree, contending that election-year politics as well as the rigorous deadline pressures of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings legislation will contribute to a longer life for the Reagan budget than many of their colleagues assume.
Some House Democrats are reluctant to bury Reagan's budget until they publicize its least popular components -- "until we've kicked it around for a while," as one Democratic aide put it.
But, in any case, Reagan's budget is "not going to be forgotten quickly as it was in the past," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.).
"It may be dead on arrival," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), "but it's not unheard of to have a viewing of the corpse."
House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) is among those who are are in no hurry for a funeral. "I think we're going to have to take a good hard look," probably including extensive hearings, he said.
Others, such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) contend that difficulties in reaching Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit targets, coupled with frequent deadlines for action to comply with the legislation, may give Reagan leverage he would not otherwise have.
At least at the start, Reagan can probably enforce vetoes of measures that defy his budget, possibly resulting in termination of 10 to 20 programs and drastic cutbacks in many others, Packwood said.
But even those who expect to give more than passing attention to Reagan's budget do not expect its substance -- "leftover hash with some hot sauce on top," as a Senate Republican aide described it -- to be any more acceptable to Congress than were many earlier budgets.
And Reagan's leverage to force his budget priorities on a reluctant Congress is weakened by the fact that if automatic spending cutbacks are triggered by Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, they will fall equally on defense and domestic programs.
Thus, a stalemate from a veto confrontation would threaten the defense programs that Reagan wants to protect as much as the domestic programs he wants to cut.
"If he starts vetoing appropriations or revenues tax increases as part of a budget package, then he's inviting both Congress and the administration to hit the wall," Panetta said.
The possibility of automatic budget-slashing increases pressure on all sides for serious, high-level negotiations on an early budget compromise that might include tax increases as well as spending cuts, according to many lawmakers.
But they expect weeks if not months of delay before the threat of automatic cutbacks in mid-October brings the administration to the bargaining table. Some don't expect an accord even then.
A few are worried that a "dead-before-arrival" budget that arouses congressional antagonisms will head off any movement toward compromise. "The past has shown that budgets just set the stage for a lot of game-playing," Panetta said. "But once you send up a budget that isn't serious, it begins to undermine the ability to put a compromise together. And in an election year, it gets mean awful quick."