WASHINGTON -- His tax cut cleared by Congress and the economy in recession two decades ago, President Reagan memorably urged the nation to ''stay the course.'' Republicans paid a steep price in midterm elections, making it a course that House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate GOP leader Trent Lott would surely like to skip in 2002.
Instead, they're prodding President Bush to do something about the weakening economy -- quickly and unequivocally embrace a capital gains tax cut, for example -- at the same time they press him to keep a political promise to protect the Social Security surplus.
Hastert set the political context starkly at the White House last week as lawmakers returned from a monthlong break. ''We're on a different schedule,'' he told Bush, according to one official in attendance at the session. The president, whose name won't be on any ballot until 2004, responded he was well aware of the different election timelines.
According to this participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Bush also said his economic plan, put into place this spring, is just now taking hold. Millions of tax rebate checks have yet to go out, and take-home pay for millions of taxpayers will rise in January next year when withholding schedules are adjusted to take next year's income tax cuts into account.
''I want the American people to know we're deeply concerned about the unemployment rates, and we intend to do something about it,'' the president said, hastening to demonstrate concern over jobless figures. So far, though, he has declined to embrace the call for more tax cuts before unveiling his budget next year.
Waiting is not on the agenda for congressional Republicans, nursing a narrow majority in the 435-member House and defending 20 of the 34 Senate seats on the ballot in 2002.
''It's important to show some leadership and not just stand on the sidelines,'' Lott told reporters Monday. ''We've got to be looking at ways to address the problem.''
Adding one more idea to a growing list, he suggested a cut in the Social Security payroll tax as well as the capital gains tax. ''There are people, at the entry level, who are hit very hard by the payroll tax,'' he said.
On the spending side of the ledger, Lott and other Republicans favor automatic spending cuts in the event the government winds up dipping into the Social Security surplus.
Some economists and even a few GOP lawmakers argue that cutting taxes and cutting spending work at cross purposes at a time when the economy needs a stimulus. ''You spend the money in the bad times and you save it in the good times. And the budget should be roughly balanced over a business cycle, not necessarily year by year,'' said David Wyss, chief economist for Standard and Poor's.
But the two steps dovetail nicely when it comes to GOP political objectives. Besides, the polling seems unequivocal. In one Democratic survey taken last month, for example, 82 percent of those polled said they would oppose tapping the Social Security surplus to boost defense spending; 65 percent said they would oppose using it for education.
There are major differences between the economic and political climate of 1982 and the current situation.
Reagan's tax cuts did not contain any immediate relief, for one thing, and the economy was in worse shape than it is now. Unemployment eventually reached 10 percent in the recession. That's roughly double the current level, and most recent figures show the economy has continued to grow, however anemically.
At the same time, joblessness has risen from 3.9 percent last October to 4.9 percent last month. Millions of Americans find their retirement accounts shriveling in value as the stock market falls. Various measurements of consumer confidence suggest a decline in optimism.
And the political polling contains sobering trends for the Republicans.
Private polls taken for both parties in recent weeks show Democrats lengthening their lead over Republicans in hypothetical matchups for congressional elections. And surveys show voters less supportive of GOP handling of important issues such as the economy, education and Social Security.
The ''stay the course'' campaign of 1982 was decidedly inhospitable for Reagan and his party. The Republicans held their Senate majority, but lost 26 House seats. Gone was the House where a large Republican minority could join with conservative Democrats to hand a Republican president victory after victory on his tax and spending priorities.
''We have set the right course. Control government spending. Lower taxes. Pay the debt,'' House Majority Leader Dick Armey asserted last week.
''Now it's time for an even bolder set of reforms.''
David Espo is AP's chief congressional correspondent.
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