President Reagan yesterday vowed not to abandon the New Right agenda of conservative social issues as White House aides laid the blame for Thursday's defeat of a school prayer bill in the Senate on the tactics of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
Helms, who led and lost a month-long fight to choke off an opposition filibuster and add anti-abortion and pro-prayer riders to the debt-ceiling bill, had complained after the Thursday defeat that the White House did not help him win a single vote.
But a senior White House official shot back yesterday: "If the White House had managed the school prayer effort, we would have met with far more success." The presidential aide, who asked not to be identified, said that Helms got the prayer bill "murked up" with the bill to lift the debt ceiling "and it went down in flames."
The blame-throwing came as Reagan, in remarks to editors and publishers of business magazines at a luncheon at the White House, said, "We're not going to give up on the social issues that have to do with the morals of this country and the great standards that made this country great. We'll be working for them."
There have been several recent reports, including one in yesterday's New York Times, that the White House -- partly in response to polls showing voters less concerned over social issues than the economy -- would shift election strategy and play down the social issues in favor of the economic issues for the rest of the campaign. Reagan denied that.
"This morning, some of the press began speculating that somehow recent attempts on some social issues, such as the place of prayer in school, the abortion problem and all, were somehow just a political gimmick and now we'd discarded that and we're moving on to something else," Reagan said.
Saying that "this country is hungry for a spiritual revival," Reagan promised he would continue to use the presidency as a "bully pulpit" to advance these and other issues on the conservative social agenda.
Deputy White House press secretary Larry Speakes said Reagan will speak at a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House today preceeding a School Prayer Day rally on the Mall.
Reagan's talk to the business editors yesterday nevertheless was devoted largely to the economy and continued what has become a kind of competition between him and the Democrats on the subject of jobs.
"You might have noticed the rhetoric from our liberal critics has already reached a crescendo," Reagan said. "The trouble is . . . . their compassionate solution is the perfect illustration of why the United States is suffering from such deep-rooted problems."
Referring to the $1 billion public works jobs bill the Democratic-controlled House approved last week, Reagan said it would be "another temporary make-work program for at best 200,000 people. It would carry all the old flaws of the wasteful, discredited CETA Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program. Most important, it's no answer to the man or woman, laid off, sitting around the table at nights wondering how they'll put their future back together again."
Reagan called instead for congressional approval of a compromise job-training bill backed by both Democrats and Republicans to replace CETA, which expires Thursday. The bill would help train, in the private sector, about 1 million poor and jobless workers a year. After resisting it in some earlier forms, the president went to some lengths to embrace it Thursday.
"My question to the speaker is, which is it going to be, Tip? Temporary or permanent? Two hundred thousand or 1 million? Make-work or training for lasting jobs?" the president asked yesterday.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) fired back that the retraining legislation is a "fine and needed bill, but it will not create a single new job," adding, "The choice is not between training and jobs. Obviously, workers need training and even trained workers need jobs.
"The real choice is between action and inaction," he said. "President Reagan continues to stand pat with an economic program that has already thrown millions out of work and threatens the jobs of millions more."