Secretary of Health and Human Services Richard S. Schweiker is resigning early next month to take a job in private industry, administration officials said yesterday.
Schweiker, whose two years in the Cabinet have been stormy, with fights over welfare, medical programs, health insurance and Social Security, would be the second Cabinet member to resign in recent weeks and the fourth since the start of the Reagan administration.
Schweiker has accepted the post of president of the American Council of Life Insurance, the spokesman for the nation's giant life-insurance industry, with a salary reportedly in six figures, sources said.
Schweiker would not comment last night on the reports of his resignation, but his son, Malcolm, 25, in a radio interview from his home in North Wales, Pa., confirmed that his father was leaving the administration for the private sector, the Associated Press reported.
The resignation was not prompted by any conflict with President Reagan, the sources said. Schweiker was said to feel that the new job was a "blue-ribbon offer" and "irresistible."
As head of the ACLI he will deal only with life insurance, sources said, and will not get into the health insurance area over which, as head of HHS, he had jurisdiction.
Former representative Margaret M. Heckler (R-Mass.), who was defeated for reelection in November after being redistricted into the same congressional district as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), is a leading candidate to replace Schweiker, according to one report. She would be the second woman nominated to the Cabinet within days.
Last week President Reagan selected Elizabeth Hanford Dole to become secretary of transportation, succeeding Schweiker's friend and former political ally from Pennsylvania, Drew Lewis, who resigned to become head of Warner-Amex Cable Communications Inc. Previous Cabinet members who resigned were former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr. and former energy secretary James B. Edwards.
Schweiker, a former member of the House and two-term senator from Pennsylvania with a liberal reputation, shocked the political world in 1976 when he agreed to become Reagan's running mate if Reagan won the GOP presidential nomination.
When Reagan won the nomination and was elected four years later, Schweiker did not seek reelection to the Senate, and instead was named HHS secretary by the new president.
Sources said Schweiker, who had just won a series of budget victories overturning proposed cuts in medical research and health monitoring agencies and in Head Start, among other programs, told the president last Friday that he wanted to resign early next month. The sources said he wrote a letter of resignation to the president Monday.
The resignation would leave the department without its two top officers, since Undersecretary David B. Swoap has just resigned to go back to California as head of the state department of health and welfare under the new Republican governor, George Deukmejian.
Social Security Commissioner John (Jack) Svahn is mentioned as potential undersecretary, along with Assistant Secretary for Health Edward N. Brandt Jr.
According to one administration source, conversations between Swoap, a former Reagan aide in California, and White House officials had led to some questions about the way Schweiker has administered the department, though that was not said to be the cause of Schweiker's decision to leave. Swoap reportedly complained about lack of organization and efficiency in the department.
Schweiker, 56, a business executive from Montgomery County, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, was first elected to the House in 1960, and moved to the Senate in 1968 when he defeated Sen. Joseph S. Clark (D).
Although he had been a conservative to moderate House member, Scwheiker won a reputation as a liberal senator who was pro-labor and an advocate of medical research, issues on which he cooperated closely with his Democratic counterpart on the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). When Reagan named Schweiker as his potential running mate in 1976, conservatives were stunned.
Schweiker had always been conservative on some issues. As a member of a tiny Protestant group that opposes abortion, the Central Schwenkfelder Church, he was consistently anti-abortion. He also opposed gun control, and used this issue in defeating Clark in 1968. In his later years in Congress he occasionally voted against school busing.
Kennedy, asked about the resignation report yesterday, responded: "Dick Schweiker has been a good friend and colleague for many years. As secretary of HHS he has too often been a lonely voice of compassion and humanity. The country may never know how much greater the damage to social programs would have been without Dick Schweiker as secretary."
As head of HHS, Schweiker was involved in some of the most bitter disputes in the Reagan administration. He worked for the tightening of welfare eligiblity and cuts in Medicare and Medicaid that were among the key goals of the administration, but were bitterly opposed by Democrats.
At the same time, he was by far the strongest defender of medical research and some basic health research programs in the administration. In 1981 and 1982, and again in current budget deliberations, he strongly defended the National Institutes of Health and the Public Health Service against large cuts proposed by budget-cutters in the Office of Management and Budget.
This year, he reportedly won 95 pecent of his budget appeals and succeeded in blocking proposals to dismantle the office of assistant secretary of health and the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration.
On Social Security, Schweiker formulated a revision plan that included many controversial cuts in future benefits to save the system. But he strongly oppposed including one major provision of the final presidential proposal, inserted at OMB insistence, that caused the most public consternation and was most responsible for the disastrous repudiation of the president's plan by Congress in 1981.
That involved sharp and immediate cuts in benefit levels for people retiring at 62.