House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) yesterday abruptly adjourned the panel's first session to write a tax-increase bill because committee Republicans refused to participate.
Presented with a list of proposals to raise $8 billion in new revenue, two-thirds of the amount the committee is required to produce under deficit-reduction legislation, committee Republicans told Rostenkowski they were not prepared to vote on any of them. Democrats pointed out afterward that nearly $3 billion of the proposed tax increases had been part of President Reagan's 1988 budget request.
"They walked away from our president," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).
The committee is scheduled to meet again next week, and Rostenkowski said he probably has enough Democratic votes on the committee to approve a tax-increase package over Republican opposition. But supporters of raising revenue said chances for passage of a tax bill on the House floor would be considerably diminished if the bill were seen as a wholly Democratic plan.
Legislators from both parties suggested yesterday that the least-painful deficit-reduction alternative facing Congress may be to accept the automatic across-the-board spending cuts that would kick in under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law if the $23 billion target for spending cuts and tax increases for the fiscal year is not achieved.
House Budget Committee Chairman William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) predicted that Reagan may decide that the automatic defense cuts triggered by the deficit law, which the president signed this week, might be more palatable than signing a tax increase. Reagan has vowed to oppose higher taxes.
"The president might say, 'Why not take the sequester?' and go back to bashing Congress," Gray said.
Lawmakers from both parties said during the Ways and Means Committee meeting that automatic cuts might be preferable to the political difficulty of raising taxes. As witness to their dilemma, hundreds of anxious lobbyists packed the halls of the Longworth House Office Building as the committee met behind closed doors.
Rostenkowski has said he will not propose his own tax plan, preferring that one evolve through committee discussions. But the options he presented to the panel yesterday included a few items that Reagan had not proposed, including postponing scheduled reductions in the estate and gift tax, extending the 3 percent tax on telephone use that expires at the end of this year and tightening the way estimated-tax payments are calculated.
Republicans pointed out during the meeting that they had not been consulted about the list and said they wanted the $23 billion in deficit reductions to be reached through more spending cuts and fewer taxes.
"We were being asked, in effect, to approve a part of a pig in a poke," said ranking Republican John J. Duncan (Tenn.). "We are saying . . . that we want to know what the total revenue package will look like before we take positions on any of it."
Several Republicans said they had received no guidance from the White House on whether to cooperate with Democratic tax writers, and Duncan said he had invited Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III to meet with committee Republicans Tuesday to discuss taxes.
"It would be an exhilirating feeling to sit down and visit with our political leadership on this one," Rep. Hal Daub (R-Neb.) said.
Staff writer Tom Kenworthy contributed to this report.