President Reagan signaled for the first time yesterday that he might be willing to accept an oil import fee if the new revenue is used in tax revision legislation and not to reduce the deficit.
Reagan's comments in remarks to newspaper correspondents before his State of the Union message last night appear to open the door to use of the oil import tax in the Senate version of tax overhaul legislation to offset revenue losses. The Senate is attempting to construct a bill that would meet Reagan's demands for deeper tax rate reductions for business and individuals than are provided in the House tax revision plan.
"It would be only there to offset some of the loophole changes" that senators "may feel are necessary," Reagan said.
Reagan has previously ruled out any new oil import fee, but a senior White House official told reporters that the president "didn't close the door" to such a tax increase in a recent meeting with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.).
However, the official said Reagan remains opposed to use of the fee for deficit reduction, as leading Senate Republicans have suggested.
High-ranking administration sources also said yesterday that Reagan's top White House advisers recently took a secret ballot at a legislative strategy group meeting on whether Reagan would eventually be forced to raise taxes, and whether he should as a matter of policy. The president insisted last night that he would not raise taxes to reduce the deficit.
The sources said 14 advisers were present, and, putting their paper ballots into an ashtray, they voted 11 to 3 that Reagan would probably have to accept a tax increase. But the same advisers voted 3 to 11 that he should not.
It was also learned yesterday that Chairman Beryl W. Sprinkel of the Council of Economic Advisers has prepared a study for White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan on the economic impact of an oil import fee.
While details of the study were not disclosed, a senior White House official said last night there are "a lot of pluses for an oil import fee -- but a lot of minuses."
The official then listed the negative aspects, saying such a fee would "negate" the economic growth and lower inflation that may result from the recent tumble in world oil prices.
"So, you're really killing the great opportunity we have for further expansion," the senior official said.
The official said Reagan's view is to stand back and see what the Senate produces. "None of us are saying anything about it," he said.
The senior official said Reagan had first opened the door to an oil import fee in a private meeting with Packwood before the Finance Committee's recent weekend retreat to discuss tax revision.
When the tax revision bill passed the House, Reagan said in a letter to Republicans that he would seek changes in the Senate, such as lower individual rates, a $2,000 personal exemption for most low- and middle-income families and incentives for business investment.
All of these would result in lost revenue. But the president also has insisted that the bill be "revenue-neutral" -- that it raise no more or less revenue than current law.
As a result, Packwood has been pressing the White House for Reagan's view of how the lost revenue should be offset.
By one administration estimate, the Senate would have to raise $130 billion over five years. Other administration officials have raised the prospect that the Senate will have to use a consumption tax to raise this much revenue, or restore part of Reagan's plan to eliminate the deduction for state and local taxes. Last night, the senior official said a $5 per barrel tax on imported oil would raise $8 billion a year in new revenues.
Asked whether there are any positive effects to such a tax, the official said, "The pros are, it raises a lot of money . . . .With the price of gasoline starting to go down at the pump and presumably going down further, this would be a more bearable type of tax.
"The same thing might apply to those with heating oil," he added, "although we would still, if there were such a proposal as that, see a lot of opposition from the northeast and north-central states to the home heating oil application of it. So it has the serendipity of -- being that with oil prices falling, why not do it as this moment."
Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said yesterday that he thinks any revenue from an imported oil fee should be used to reduce deficits rather than to offset losses sustained in overhauling the tax code.
If an oil import fee were enacted, "it would seem to me it should be more appropriately reserved for deficit reduction," said Dole, joining a position held by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).
Senate Republican leaders have been pressuring the White House to join them in a budget compromise early this year that would probably include domestic cuts, a slowdown in Reagan's military expansion and some tax increase.
The senior White House official said last night that Reagan would engage in "give and take" with Congress in the weeks ahead over domestic budget cuts. But the official ruled out any compromise by the president on the defense buildup or on taxes.
Reagan believes that "no tax is the best tax," the senior official said.
However, the same official said that Reagan's budget request, which is to be sent to Congress today, includes $6.3 billion in new revenues out of the total $38 billion in deficit savings.
The revenue increases include keeping the federal cigarette tax at 16 cents per pack, instead of allowing it to fall to 8 cents as planned. Reagan had earlier opposed the higher federal tax.
The new revenues also include "user fees" on those who benefit from such federal programs as the Coast Guard and national parks.