The Reagan administration pelted with objections from Republicans as well as Democarts in Congress, yesterday hedged on its proposal to combine more than 80 education, health and social service programs into no-string-attached block grants to the states.
"We're not in anything near an adamant take-it-leave-it position," Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell told two House subcommittees after outlining some concessions and indicating that others might be negotiated.
It was the second time in a week the administration reponded to resistance to a major legislative initiative by signaling a willingness to compromise. It did so last week on its proposed cuts in Social Security benefits, which had created an uproar in Congress.
The block grant proposal has run into a strong undertow on both sides of Capital Hill, with some Republicans voicing objections as strongly as Democrats.
In the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Republicians Robert T. Stafford (Vt.) and Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (Conn.) have joined the Democratic minority on the committee in objecting to some elements of the block grant proposal -- in effect creating a stalemate on the plan.
In a variation on the same theme in the House Education and Labor Committee yesterday, several Republicians indicated support for an alternative that would exempt most of the big federal education programs -- including programs for poor and handicapped children -- from the two proposed block grants for education.
Some Republicians as well as Democrats said they also objected to the administration's plan to drop a so-called "maintenance of effort" requirement under which federal aid cannot be used to supplant local or state support of educational programs.
They said they hoped an alternative could be worked out in updating a modified block grant bill introduced last year by Rep. John M. Ashbrook (R-Ohio), ranking minoirty member of the committee.
The administration has proposed combining education programs into two block grants at a combined cost of $3.8 billion, accounting to a 25 percent across-the-board cut in spending for the programs. It would also free state and local school systems of many of the existing federal rules for spending the money, including the "maintenance of effort" provision.
Aid for poor and handicapped students constitutes about 85 percent of the proposed education block grants, according to Bell, meaning that only smaller programs that cost relatively little would be included in the block grants if the two major programs are excluded.
Bell told the education subcommittees that "some of the points in the Ashbrook bill might strengthen ours," although he emphasized that the administration believes it doesn't go far enough. Among other things, he said the "maintenance of effort" provision was an unnecessary impediment to flexibility in light of what he called a "new awareness, a new commitment in state education" to the needs addressed by the federal programs.
But he added: "The big thing is that we want a consolidated bill . . . . We're open to looking at ways we might improve it."
In his testimony, Bell also outlined administration proposals to ensure that block grant money isn't used for general tax relief on for other purposes not contemplated by the legislation -- which Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers said were news to them.
These included auditing requirements and use of federal inspectors general for monitoring purposes. "The administration's proposal does not retreat from our present national objective," said Bell. "It directs benefits to these same students with special needs as under present laws, and limits the use of funds to the same type of activities."
Questioning whether such objectives may invite the same kind of federal rule-making that the administration is trying to escape by use of block grants. Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.) suggested it amounted to a shell game. "I submit I'm never going to find which shell the pea is under," he said. The only real difference, Ford added, is less money.
Bell disputed Ford's argument, saying many onerous rules and regulations will be dropped. "To say there is no difference is just not so," he added.