White House officials said yesterday that there is dissatisfaction with the performance of Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret M. Heckler, and one senior official said she is "fighting for her job."
Heckler, who is at home recuperating from surgery, acknowledged that there have been "recurrent rumors" of staff displeasure but said that President Reagan has fully supported her and that she intends to remain in the Cabinet as long as he is satisfied.
"I work for the president," she said. "I don't work for the White House staff."
Heckler blamed the reports of dissatisfaction on "disgruntled Cabinet-seekers in the White House at high staff positions who never seem to tire of advancing themselves." She did not name anyone, but several administration officials identified her main critic as John A. (Jack) Svahn, the White House domestic policy chief.
Svahn, who was on vacation and not available for comment yesterday, served as Heckler's deputy at HHS and left after several disputes over management of the department. He has been pushed by some administration conservatives as a successor to Heckler and has made it known he is available, officials said.
Some of these officials have suggested that a face-saving job switch could be made by naming Heckler ambassador to Ireland and replacing her with Svahn. Heckler, who said she is aware of this proposal, called the diplomatic post "a lovely position for somebody else even though my maiden name is O'Shaughnessy."
She said she is interested in holding her current job and then ticked off a list of policy initiatives that she said were fully supported by the president.
Heckler said that she had discussed one of these initiatives, a process to streamline the licensing of prescription drugs, in detail with White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan two weeks ago before entering the hospital to undergo an elective hysterectomy. She said that Regan was supportive and did not suggest that she leave the Cabinet.
However, other informed administration officials named Regan as a principal source of White House dissatisfaction. Heckler and Regan sometimes differed on policy issues when Regan was treasury secretary. One official said that the "political style" of Heckler, who served 16 years as a House member from Massachusetts, also conflicted with the "corporate management preferences" of Regan, who reportedly has plans to bolster both the Cabinet and the White House with a series of staff changes.
One of these prospective changes could involve Svahn, one of the few surviving members of Reagan's original California team on the White House staff. Administration officials said that Svahn's position has been severely undercut by a Regan surrogate, Cabinet secretary Alfred Kingon. The two men have clashed on issues, and some of Svahn's staff positions have been reassigned to Kingon.
"The Regan team wants Svahn and all the old guard out of the White House and putting him in the Cabinet would be a convenient way to do it," said one well-informed White House official.
White House staff disapproval with Heckler has taken several forms. Officials said that Office of Management and Budget officials have tried to "micromanage the department" and make more severe cuts in Medicare and other HHS programs than Heckler is willing to accept. Several key appointments sought by Heckler have been delayed by the White House Office of Personnel for many months.
On Tuesday, officials said, White House officials vetoed a planned appearance by Heckler on the ABC program "Good Morning America" timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Social Security. Heckler aides were informed of the decision by a telephone call from a junior deputy in the White House press office. Recently, Heckler was also told to turn down a request to appear on the CBS program "Face the Nation." Some administration officials said the White House order was simply an effort to deemphasize the sensitive issue of Social Security, which some Republicans expect to be a major Democratic issue in the 1986 campaigns. But one well-informed source said it was "a direct slap at Heckler by conservatives who would prefer to stress budget cuts than compassion."
Heckler, 54, forged a reputation as a moderate during her years in Congress but has supported major cutbacks in social programs and she was credited in 1984 as softening the perception that the administration has been unfair to the poor and disabled.
Inside the administration she has campaigned for rules that would make it more difficult to remove people from Social Security disability rolls, supported a major initiative against acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and helped fashion a significant new child support law.
Many of these initiatives have come under fire by conservatives, some of whom have also criticized Heckler on administrative grounds.
Heckler said that the president called her last December when rumors of her ouster were prevalent and assured her of his support. She said that he has been consistently supportive since then.
"I am dedicated to the president and the American people," Heckler said. "Unless he expresses dissatisfaction with me, I can't take these rumors seriously. I find the job very satisfying and don't intend to step down."