NASHUA, N.H., JAN. 29 -- Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) called today for an across-the-board, one-year spending freeze that he said would reduce the federal deficit without a tax increase and "without anyone being hurt or stopped in their tracks."
Attempting to sharpen distinctions between himself and Vice President Bush, his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Dole has made the freeze idea a central theme in his campaign. It has also played a prominent role this week in his stump speech in tax-conscious New Hampshire, where rivals are accusing him of favoring tax increases.
"A budget freeze is not a panacea; it's a plug in the dike," Dole said, describing it as a way to "buy time" for the next president to "set priorities."
Several budget analysts and members of Congress interviewed about the proposal have said that Dole's support for the freeze concept is characteristic of his Senate efforts during Reagan's presidency to reduce the deficit despite large political risks. They also said it is a more realistic and specific suggestion on how to face the deficit than most of the Republicans have offered.
But these officials said Dole's freeze, compared with a plan that would include revenue increases, highlights just how difficult and painful the choices would be in making a freeze work.
"My sense is that Dole has bitten the bullet a lot more than some of the other candidates," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), who was a leading player in the budget battles of recent years. "A freeze is a tough choice. Once you get into that you start to present tough choices to the American people. At least he's acknowledging the problems are there.
"The danger of every freeze proposal are the exceptions you have to make," Panetta added. Dole lists a number affecting the needy. "Once you open that door to exceptions, you become trapped. There isn't a constituency in the country that can't argue why they should be exempted," Panetta said.
One of the most difficult areas to freeze under Dole's proposal, budget analysts have said, is the defense budget, which is approved on a multiyear basis and is hard to freeze quickly.
Other spending, such as $200 billion for interest on the $2.4 trillion debt, cannot be frozen. And to freeze spending on the giant entitlement programs would require major legislative changes in each program.
The result is that a spending freeze might not produce the large savings that Dole envisions or that those programs that can be cut would be have to be very hard hit in order to achieve the overall savings he seeks.
While a number of freeze proposals in Congress have failed because of the political difficulty of getting many different interest groups to sacrifice all at once, Dole said it would be different if he were president. "The biggest difference is you're going to have somebody in the White House pushing it," he said last week. "That hasn't been the case."
Like the other candidates, Dole also would like to spend more for some government programs. For example, he has said the government will have to find a way to help the elderly without insurance to bear long-term health care costs. "You're going to have to say, well, this program is going to cost some money," Dole said. "We're going to have to offset it some way."
Dole said that his plan, or especially, his alternative, a 2 percent spending cap, would be "less onerous, more reasonable" than an absolute freeze.
The 2-percent solution, according to Dole, would save $161 billion over three years and would lead to a balanced budget by 1993. Sources said Dole has developed the idea along with Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and others.
"Really, he's saying to the voter, 'Here's my generic concept, and I am the best legislative deal-maker around, trust me to take the concept forward and produce results,' " said Lawrence Kudlow, chief economist at Bear Stearns & Co. Inc., who has advised Dole on economic issues. Dole, he said, is "asking people to trust in his competence to put this thing through where others have failed before him."
While Dole has been talking spending freezes and cuts, however, he, like almost all candidates, also has some added spending in mind. In speeches here this week, he has expressed interest in increasing spending for education, for the disabled, day care, legal services for the poor and aid for the homeless. Only on the day-care issue did he propose a way to save money as well -- by limiting day-care tax credits to families earning $50,000 a year rather than at the current ceiling of $80,000.
Dole's freeze exemptions include programs for low-income people such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, the Women, Infants and Children feeding program, and poor Americans on Social Security.
Dole said today that rather than exempt Social Security cost-of-living increases from a freeze, he would prefer to limit such increases to 2 percent a year, a cap that many advocates for the elderly oppose.
"This is a cost-of-living adjustment," he said. "It's not a reduction in basic benefits."
Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) has been battering Dole here on the Social Security issue. Kemp favors leaving Social Security intact and has characterized Dole in speeches and ads as a senator who has cut Social Security and wants to do so again. Kemp, Dole responds, is a "Candidate Feel-Good," who is willing to tell anybody anything they want to hear.