A potentially bitter and divisive confrontation between the Reagan administration and hundreds of delegates to the White House Conference on Aging was averted yesterday when a key committee approved a compromise resolution opposing benefit reductions for current and future Social Security recipients and leaving more leeway in how those benefits may be funded.
A day earlier, the committee had passed a resolution that deleted reference to future recipients and another opposing use of general revenue funds for Social Security.
At the same time, opponents of the administration's Social Security policies, frustrated Tuesday in trying to pass resolutions in the committee primarily responsible for setting Social Security policy, won a series of votes in other committees covering much the same ground where they had failed the previous day.
Tuesday evening, an angry, embittered mood had grown among several hundred of the delegates who crowded into a ballroom of the Shoreham Hotel to voice their displeasure with the conference's direction. The meeting was presided over by former health, education and welfare secretary Arthur S. Flemming and Charles Schottland, who served as Social Security commissioner in the Eisenhower administration, and it ended with plans for a demonstration yesterday morning before the Social Security committee.
The demonstration was to be led by Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), an honorary chairman of the conference, and he showed up as promised, cheered on by several hundred delegates and observers. He was quickly taken to a corridor, however, where he spent the morning in negotiations with officials from the administration and organizations on aging over the wording of a compromise resolution.
Pepper's primary concern was with the resolution, also passed by the committee Tuesday, that opposed the use of general revenue funds to support the financially pressed Social Security system. He warned Tuesday night that the committee's action would "irreparably" harm Social Security and handicap members of Congress "trying to help" it.
After a full morning of behind-the-scenes negotiations, the committee was offered a resolution that apparently satisfied both Pepper and those concerned that benefits not be reduced for future recipients of Social Security. The resolution opposed any reductions in benefits to current recipients and called on the administration and Congress to "make every possible and fiscally responsible effort to maintain" present benefit levels for future beneficiaries.
The resolution was quickly embraced by leaders who had been on opposing sides the previous day, and it passed with only one dissenting vote. Pepper said after the vote that the new resolution was "acceptable to all parties" and was a "tolerable resolution."
Jacob Clayman, president of the National Council of Senior Citizens, said of the resolution: "It can be interpreted in a number of ways."
In the meantime, while attention was focused on the Social Security committee--formally known as the economic well-being committee--a number of other committees were taking clear and unambiguous positions in favor of resolutions that the committee had rejected on Tuesday.
Resolutions supporting the use of general revenue funds to support the Social Security system were passed by at least two committees. Another committee approved a resolution calling for an increase in federal transfer payment programs aimed at the poorest elderly to assure at least the intermediate income level for older Americans as determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A similar resolution, which mirrors action taken by the 1971 White House Conference on Aging, was defeated by the Social Security committee on Tuesday.
In addition, a resolution was approved by the Social Security committee to raise Supplemental Security Income paid to the aged, blind and disabled above the federally determined poverty level, at an annual cost of $6 billion.
By midday, leaders of organizations on aging were talking about a turnaround in the direction of the conference.
"From the reports I am getting, we are winning much of the conference," said Jack Ossofsky, executive director of the National Council on the Aging. "We are sensing that committees are turning around in a variety of ways." Referring to the compromise worked out in the Social Security committee, Ossofsky said of the administration, "The fact of the matter is they found it important to step back."
Late yesterday, the New York state delegation announced it was planning to attempt to change the rules at today's final conference session to allow delegates to vote on each committee's report rather than on all committee reports together in a single up-or-down vote.