When a reporter asked President Reagan last month why he was threatening to veto any jobs bill produced by the lame-duck congressional session while the nation was facing a 10.8 percent unemployment rate, Reagan let it be known that a jobs bills was not his answer to joblessness.
"I just think the answer to unemployment is recovery," he said. "And anything that adds to the deficit and delays the economic recovery is going to set us back more than any temporary jobs."
Less than a month since then, however, the Reagan administration is looking at options for federally funded jobs programs despite what the cost of a jobs program could do to the burgeoning federal deficit. At the same time, Reagan's rhetoric has changed.
"Too many of our citizens are ready and able to work and yet cannot find jobs," Reagan said last Tuesday in Chicago. "The millions of unemployed form a sea of unused minds, talent and energy. We must not turn our backs on their pain . . . . We're not going to rest until every American who wants a job can find one."
"We are still opposed to some job creation bills that are make-work bills," White House counselor Edwin Meese III said the next day, "but the president has always said that any way we can improve the employment situation that is consistent with the goal of economic growth would be fine. That can help the economy and help us politically."
The key to the turnabout, according to administration officials, was the government estimate of a slow economic recovery, an increase of only 1.3 percent in the gross national product for 1983, which will leave the unemployment rate in the 10 percent range at least into the presidential election year of 1984.
To find a government-funded jobs program that will not increase the deficit, however, leaves the White House in a political trap between the danger of campaigning on a record of continually high unemployment or doing even more damage to the president's 1980 campaign promise to lower the deficit.
In addition, congressional Republicans are exerting pressure for a jobs bill as 19 GOP senators approach reelection fights in 1984 after watching Democrats gain 26 House seats in last November's midterm election.
"The Republicans in the Senate have decided to move on jobs," said Robert McGlotten, assistant director for legislation at the AFL-CIO. "They have the biggest crop of their people up for reelection in the last six years, and unemployment is staring at them as the No. 1 issue. It's a serious problem for them to come to grips with, and they are looking to see what they can do without straying too far from the party . . . and they are bringing the administration along kicking and screaming."
Democrats are adding to the pressure. At hearings last week by the Senate subcommittee on employment and productivity, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) listened to Alice Rivlin, director of the Congressional Budget Office, report that the current unemployment rate of 10.8 percent is the highest since World War II and "likely to continue for some time . . . ."
"It seems to me," Kennedy told Rivlin in discussing the need for a jobs program, "the Congress is suggesting [to the president] either one way or another, either subtly or maybe in a more outspoken way, that we ought to alter the course . . . not just the Democrats, for here is a majority leader, Sen. Howard H. Baker; the chairman of the Finance Committee, Sen. Robert J. Dole . . . a close friend of the president, Sen. [Paul] Laxalt, all talking in various different tones, but they are all talking about changing the course."
In fact, Republican senators have begun taking steps on unemployment. The hearings attended by Kennedy were scheduled by Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), chairman of the subcommittee, which is set to produce a proposal by Congress' spring recess.
Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has scheduled hearings this week on jobs proposals, and the Republican leadership has met to decide how best to coordinate the surge of GOP job proposals.
"Everybody knows there is going to be a jobs bill one way or another," Dole said. "A few weeks ago, Sen. Baker and I got together a Republican group, and I suggested that Baker be the nominal head of a committee that keep track of all the ideas on handling unemployment . . . . There's not much of a question now of whether we will have a bill. It's a matter of what form it is going to take."
Dole, whose Finance Committee is looking at jobs programs and has also scheduled hearings this week, held a private meeting with representatives of several labor organizations early this month to discuss the possibility of increased revenue sharing with local governments with the highest unemployment rates and of extending unemployment insurance benefits beyond the current six-month extension to April.
On the same day Reagan traveled to Chicago, Dole was there talking about unemployment with governors of five midwestern states suffering high unemployment and a shortage of unemployment insurance funds.
Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), meanwhile, has said he favors a jobs bill or increased funding of the Job Partnership Training Act, which allows for retraining persons unemployed as a result of shutdowns in several troubled industries, such as automobiles and steel.
"The administration said the recent highway tax bill wasn't a jobs bill, and I think they'll have to stick by that," Hatch said. "What we need now is to address the jobs problem . . . . If I have my way as chairman . . . one thing the administration can do is to utilize the concept of JTPA and fund it so we can have retraining programs of some magnitude. It will cost money, but it must be done."
Questions remain about how much a jobs bill should cost amid a ballooning deficit.
"I haven't really focused in on that yet. Right now, the debate is between what the Senate and the House did in the lame-duck session , $1.2 billion and $5.5 billion, maybe a little more," Quayle said, referring to funding figures in jobs bills proposed by each chamber.
At the White House, the job of quickly reviewing options for jobs programs is in the hands of domestic affairs adviser Edwin L. Harper and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Martin Feldstein.
According to Harper, leading candidates as administration jobs proposals are a program in which the long-term unemployed may give government vouchers to an employer to defray the cost of hiring them, a sub-minimum wage for teen-agers, an extension of unemployment benefits and a program to retrain skilled workers in troubled industries, such as autos and steel.
"A government program for the unemployed ought to be designed to get people back to work," Harper said, "not just give them checks to stay home. If we don't get them to go back to work, then something is wrong with the system . . . ."
"When we talk about unemployment now, we are referring to something different from the ordinary unemployment," he said. "We have several industries . . . reeling and forcing people out of work."
Harper says three forces have caused the collapse of major industries:
* Downsizing and lower energy consumption. "Congress may not have realized when they legislated fuel-efficient small cars that they were also legislating less steel, less zinc, more plastic. It's a material revolution . . . ."
* Increased competition from abroad in agriculture and steel.
* Rapid technological change. "AT&T has consumed 5 percent of the copper market in this country for decades. Now AT&T says they will need not any more copper for the rest of the century. They are working with glass and fiber optics. What does that mean for an entire industry? "
Instead of looking at jobs programs, Harper said, the president will announce programs that will help the economy through transition to new industries.
Reagan addressed that point Thursday at a rally of his government appointees to celebrate the start of his third year in office.
"The Washington Post recently carried a report about a consumer electronics show in which a thousand manufacturers were gathering to exhibit their products," Reagan said. "This is an area of the economy where business is booming, American ingenuity is unmatched and one of their representatives said, 'We're doing great . . . our companies are looking for workers.'
"So let's roll up our sleeves and get the people looking for work trained so they can step into the jobs that are available."
The White House is considering the sub-minimum wage for teen-agers--or "youth differential," as Harper calls it--in the belief that the biggest problem faced by teen-agers in the job market is getting a first job and training that goes with it.
Another option, pushed by the Labor Department, involves increased funding of the Job Training Partnership Act, which Reagan approved last October as a scaled-down replacement for the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, the public-sector jobs program that Reagan maligned as "make-work."
Assistant Labor Secretary Albert Angrisani is urging an increase in funding for the program's job-training component from $25 million to an amount nearer the program's $3 billion spending limit.
Sar Levitan, chairman of President Carter's National Commission on Employment and Unemployment Status, calls the sub-minimum wage proposal a "substitute for action" and describes the voucher program as "incentive to find work but . . . not a program to create jobs."
Levitan, who favors a government public works program, said the administration's fear of increasing the deficit by spending money on public works is shortsighted because workers pay taxes and do not depend on public welfare programs.
"They keep saying that a jobs program now would be countercyclical because the recovery is coming," said Levitan, a professor at George Washington University. "Even by their own estimates, the recovery will be slow and high unemployment will continue into 1984 . . . that does not make it countercyclical.
"Until now, people have been afraid they will be dubbed big spenders but, now that Reagan's popularity and credibility are coming down, I think you will hear some people come out with proposals." Picture, Hundreds of people ring parking lot at Sun Co.'s refinery in Chester, Pa., to pick up job applications. About 2,850 applied Saturday for the 30 jobs becoming available. AP