Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. said today the party should consider means tests for Social Security recipients, a freeze on payments and a limit on future benefits for wealthy recipients. Later, he issued a total retraction, saying "I was wrong."
"In a theoretical discussion of budget deficits with reporters, I used ill-advised language that may lead some to the incorrect conclusion about the Democratic Party's position on Social Security," Kirk said in a statement late today.
"I was wrong. Our party, led on this issue by Rep. Claude Pepper D-Fla. and others, is unalterably opposed to any cuts in Social Security benefits.
"I should not have mentioned the subject of a means test. Even though some voices in our party have suggested that a means test be discussed or that a freeze on benefits be considered, that is not the position of the Democratic Party, nor should it be. We will never endorse cutting of Social Security benefits," Kirk said.
His hasty retraction came as Democrats prepare to attack President Reagan for compromising with Senate Republicans on a budget that includes limitations on Social Security cost-of-living increases.
Kirk's troubles began at a breakfast meeting with reporters as he said he believes that "the party ought to consider a freeze on the budget question, across-the-board."
In making such decisions, he said, Congress must consider that "there's always a question of the need and whether the wealthy who have received Social Security are the people who really need the Social Security payment . . . .
"I think the question with Social Security that ought to be looked at is whether the COLAs cost-of-living adjustments and the payments ought to be applied to those who have no real need for that."
Kirk added that he was "not making policy" for the party but suggesting something that should be "looked into."
Kirk's remarks appeared to put him in sympathy with Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who has advocated means tests for Social Security and Medicare and who is a founder of the new Democratic Leadership Council that Kirk opposed.
By the end of the day, Kirk had acknowledged implicitly that, amid a political fight with the president, Democrats are not ready to change many of their traditional positions.