About half of the Senate Finance Committee members attending a private weekend retreat indicated in an informal show of hands yesterday that they favor raising taxes to reduce the deficit, sources at the meeting reported.
The other members of the panel, meeting in Berkeley Springs, W. Va., to discuss the tax bill passed by the House last year, indicated that they want the legislation to produce the same amount of revenue as existing law.
In another show of hands, more than half said they are willing to consider limiting the deduction for state and local sales and personal-property taxes but not the one for real estate taxes, the sources said.
The panel's sentiment for a tax increase came hours after President Reagan, meeting at the White House with Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), reiterated his opposition to new taxes.
Meanwhile, in a surprising twist on tax revision, White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan told the Republican National Committee here that any legislation approved by the Senate this year "must take care of our natural resource industries" such as "oil and gas, timber and the like."
Almost all of the committee's 20 members attended the retreat. Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) is at a previously scheduled event in Kansas.
When Packwood asked how many members wanted to table or ignore tax revision, five or six raised their hands. A similar number said they strongly favor proceeding with the House-passed bill, and the rest said they are willing to give it a try.
The retreat, like one by the House Ways and Means Committee before members wrote their bill last fall, is intended to give panel members a chance to discuss the bill with each other and administration officials and to talk about procedures to be followed in writing their legislation.
It is the senators' first opportunity to discuss the controversial issue together in at least six months, and the hand votes requested by Packwood were his first effort to measure members' sentiments.
Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) reportedly made a strong pitch for his business-transfer tax, a form of value-added tax, but received little response. Members also hotly debated a fee on imported oil.
They also suggested negotiating an agreement with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) to postpone the effective date of the tax bill to ease business uncertainty.
Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III and his deputy, Richard G. Darman, said little during the first afternoon of the 24-hour meeting, the sources said.
Although sentiment was strong for a tax increase, preferably from such non-income sources as energy or consumption, many members agreed that their legislation should give companies larger write-offs for investments in machinery and equipment. As they have said publicly, senators argued that the House bill would further increase the U.S. trade deficit by making exports less competitive.
Regan's comments to the RNC meeting about natural-resource industries marked the first time that a White House official has included such specific and controversial tax benefits among the president's criteria for Senate legislation.
His comments surprised other White House officials because elimination of special-interest tax breaks has been a major reason for the tax-overhaul effort. He did not elaborate in his speech.
Asked later for clarification, a White House spokesman said Regan was providing his own views on the "political realities" in Congress and that the comment was "not intended in any way to signal a change in that list" of criteria laid down by Reagan for the Senate bill.
The spokesman said Regan was not trying to signal a "deal" with Congress on issues involving the timber, oil and gas industries.
Packwood, whose state is heavily dependent on the timber industry, has been a strong advocate of restoring timber tax benefits limited in the House bill. His Senate committee includes many other members who represent states where the timber, oil and gas industries are concentrated.
The chief of staff made his comments after listing the president's other criteria for the Senate bill. These include a top personal tax rate of 35 percent, doubling the personal exemption for low- and middle-income families, and a lower capital gains rate.
The president had promised to push for these points as part of his campaign to win House approval last month.
The House bill limited tax benefits for the timber, oil and gas industries as part of a larger trade-off in which corporate taxes were raised in exchange for lower rates for individuals.
On timber, the House bill preserved tax benefits for small companies and individuals. But it repealed tax benefits worth an estimated $4.9 billion annually for large timber companies.