Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said yesterday that Congress is unlikely to slash Social Security benefits for Americans close to retirement age and predicted that the rest of President Reagan's sweeping Social Security proposals would face "a lot of compromises."
Dole also disclosed that leaders of the two congressional tax-writing committees will meet privately today, apparently with White House approval, to discuss the possibility of drafting a compromise income tax cut bill designed to win prompt approval in both houses.
One of the most controversial of the Social Security cuts proposed last week by the Reagan administration is one to reduce benefits sharply for those who retire at age 62.
But in an appearance on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM), Dole said his talks with congressional colleagues showed Congress was "probably not going to do very much very soon as far as early retirees are concerned. . . .Those who will turn 62 in the next few years probably don't have very much to worry about."
Dole expressed surprise and dismay at the timing of the Social Security proposals, although he stopped short of calling it a tactical error on the part of the administration.
"I'm not sure I fully understand why is was necessary to unveil the Social Security package in the last few days," he said.
He said there had been no congressional input and that, apart from a phone call from Health and Human Services Secretary Richard S. Schweiker a week before the administration unveiled its proposals, he had only 12 hours' notice of the announcement.
"We've got all we can do right now dealing with the budget and taxes," Dole continued. "We ought to clear the deck before we bite the bullet on Social Security."
Mindful that members of Congress may find themselves cutting consitituents' benefits in an election year, Dole appeared to take issue with the comprehensive and immediate cuts proposed by Schweiker.
"What we need to do early is to figure out how we can borrow from other funds so we can get through the next couple of years," Dole said. "In the short term we will make some changes which will not affect benefits."
In comments after his televised interview, Dole said the compromise tax cut bill to be discussed at today's meeting probably will involve a somewhat smaller overall reduction than Reagan is seeking and will include several provisions sought by Democrats, such as eliminating the so-called "marriage penalty" that hurts couples who file jointly.
Among the possibilities Dole has been considering are cutting income tax rates 8 percent a year for each of three years (rather than 10 percent a year as Reagan has asked), trim the highest tax rate for individuals from 70 percent to 50 percent and reduce taxes for the poor.
Overall, the bill Dole described would be significantly less expensive than Reagan's -- $35 billion to $40 billion in fiscal 1982, instead of the $54 billion cut the president is seeking -- with the relief skewed more toward low- and middle-income wage-earners.
The meeting today will include Dole and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and the ranking minority members of the House and Senate panels, Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) and Rep. Barber B. Conable (R-N.Y.).
On Air Force One, en route from a commencement speech at Notre Dame to Andrews Air Force Base, Reagan telephoned Dole and reiterated his commitment to his plan. He said he hoped Dole would hold to that position.
"Sen. Dole indicated that he would and that he understood that the president was committed, although he was willing to listen to any alternatives that might be advanced," said White House chief of staff James A. Baker III, who told reporters on the plane about the Reagan-Dole conversation.
Baker said there was no discussion of specifics but that "the president feels that the idea of multiyear cuts, the idea of incentives for economic growth by way of accelerated depreciation -- these concepts are the sine qua non of his program."
The White House chief of staff also said, in response to questions, that the president is pleased the senator is having the meeting with Rostenkowski, Conable and Long, and sees "nothing improper of unusual" about Dole's failure to support every "jot and tittle" of the Reagan tax plan.
The administration has urged Congress to pass the president's plan intact and then vote later in the year on a "second" tax cut bill that would contain the Democrats' proposals.
However, Dole said yesterday he thought Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill were close enough on the issue to work out a compromise that could be pushed through both houses promptly.
Although the compromise Dole is considering would fall short of the president's proposal, it would retain the two elements the White House insists are crucial -- an across-the-board reduction in tax rates and a series of cuts stretching over two or three years.
Meanwhile, the administration disclosed yesterday that Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan will cut short his scheduled nine-day trip to Gabon and Saudi Arabia and return to Washington today, at least in part to shepherd negotiations on the tax-cut package.
Dole said he informed the White House late Saturday about the chairmen's meeting, which would mark the first attempt in recent memory to work out a bipartisan compromise on a major tax bill before drafting sessions begin in the tax-writing committees.