The offer President Reagan made in his television address Wednesday night to negotiate with Congress "on every spending item in the budget" if he is promised there will be a vote on a constitutional amendment to balance the budget drew a skeptical and sometimes hostile reaction yesterday from House Democratic leaders.
House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) said he was "intrigued" by Reagan's offer, but had received indications from the White House that the president meant only that he wants to negotiate an increase in defense spending above the level set in the budget adopted by Congress.
"If this budget proposal is strictly to get more money for defense because they don't have the votes, we're not interested," Coelho said. "But if it is a sincere effort to have discussions to get us out of the budget quagmire we are in, we are always interested in talking."
Two other key Democrats, House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (Pa.), were more harsh in their assessments.
"His call for a balanced-budget amendment is a retreat from any serious discussion of budget issues for the remainder of his administration," said Foley, who predicted that there are not enough votes to pass a constitutional amendment. "I not only see no opening but I see a signal that indicates absolute stonewalling on budget issues by the president."
Foley said a congressional vote on a balanced-budget amendment -- which has been rejected by the House and Senate during Reagan's tenure -- would do nothing to bring about near-term reductions in the federal deficit because it could not take effect until after Reagan leaves office.
Gray called Reagan's offer a "nonstarter" that papered over the president's failure to propose balanced budgets and the fact that the national debt will triple under his leadership.
"He has always said he will talk about spending cuts, but he's never willing to talk about a combination of spending cuts and revenues," Gray said. "He's in essence saying let the next guy handle it."
Coelho, however, said that the administration's recent willingness to join with congressional leaders in pursuing peace in Central America might indicate a concurrent softening of White House opposition to budget talks with the Democratic-controlled 100th Congress.
"I was one of those who was skeptical on Central America," Coelho said. "Maybe there is a new relationship with Congress. If they are willing to do that on Central America, are they also willing to do it on the budget?"
Congress and the Reagan administration have been at loggerheads over budget and revenue issues since Reagan submitted his $1 trillion fiscal 1988 budget request in January, and the stalemate has threatened to continue well into the fall.
A continued impasse could mean little reduction in the federal deficit, which is projected to be $183 billion in fiscal 1988 if Congress and the White House do not cut spending or raise revenues.
The budget adopted this year calls for $19.3 billion in higher taxes, an increase Reagan has vowed to veto if he is sent separate legislation to raise the revenue. The budget would also provide $23 billion less in Pentagon spending authority than was sought by the administration if Reagan does not agree to a tax increase.
Without some agreement between Congress and the White House over the budget, a prolonged stalemate could ensue over the spending bills needed to fund the government beyond Oct. 1 with Congress eventually sending Reagan another catchall spending bill.
A House GOP leadership aide speculated yesterday that Reagan's "gesture" could spark discussions over a timetable for enacting spending bills.