When Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) called the White House last summer to set up a meeting with President Reagan on legislation to elevate the Veterans Administration to a Cabinet-level department, he was met by total silence. Chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. wouldn't even return his calls.

"I called again and again, and got no response from Baker," Solomon said. In exasperation, he finally aired his frustration publicly late last October during a House hearing. Three days later, he said, he was called to a White House meeting, where he found Reagan "very receptive."

Up to that point, the White House had been extremely cool to the idea, according to senior White House officials, even though it was clear that the bill, with 275 cosponsors, would sail through the House. Every senior White House official recommended that Reagan reject the proposal.

About Nov. 8 or 9, Reagan was sent a decision document with a cover memo from Baker strongly urging the president not to approve, the sources said.

On Nov. 10, the day before Veterans Day, the president called veterans groups and congressional leaders to the White House and announced he had decided to support the bill creating a Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs. Members of the White House staff were stunned.

"This is a personal decision I've thought about for some time," Reagan said. "There are six times as many veterans alive today as . . . in 1930 when the agency was first created. And veterans have always had a strong voice in our government, but it's time to give them the recognition that they so rightly deserve. So, I'm joining with those here today in support of this effort."

Afterward, a senior White House official who had advised against the decision said, "It's something of a mystery to a great many folks here. I don't think there was anyone here who thought he would sign off. Everyone . . . thought it wasn't in the cards." Another White House source said he did not believe staff members were informed in advance and added, "He did it on his own."

Although Reagan's decision was a shock, veterans groups had worked for years for such a change, arguing that America's defenders deserve that sort of recognition. Max Cleland, VA administrator in the Carter administration, argued at a recent hearing that such a move would show "America's veterans that their sacrifice is recognized, appreciated, and will be properly rewarded with the access and voice they deserve at the highest level of American government."

Virtually no one approves of the way the VA is run. Veterans advocates say it should do more. Opponents say veterans already receive a disproportionate share of the federal budget and that Cabinet status would just encourage them to ask for more. They argue that the VA's functions should be streamlined and taken over by existing federal departments.

There is no dispute that the government has a lasting obligation to veterans wounded in combat and to their families and survivors, or that there is an obligation to other veterans, most of whom have not been in combat.

But opponents charge that veterans benefits have grown into a bloated entitlement program bordering on a welfare system, with most money spent on noncombat injuries and veterans who never saw combat. They argue that at some point, programs for veterans who did not suffer combat injuries should be phased out because there is no comparable program for any other segment of society.

VA benefits range from education subsidies, job training and low-interest home mortgage loans to medical care, disability compensation and long-term nursing home care.

Proponents argue that Cabinet status will cost just $30,000 more -- to bring top VA salaries to the level of a Cabinet department. But opponents say the prime motive behind the move to Cabinet status is to give veterans the clout to get more extensive benefits.

Congressional sources quietly acknowledge that the strength of the veterans lobby makes it difficult to vote against the bill, and they were counting on the president to take the heat and stand up against it. But when Reagan decided to back the change, all substantial opposition to it collapsed. White House sources said there was no further effort within the administration, either at the White House or the Office of Management and Budget, to oppose the change.

When Reagan announced his support, House Democrats and Republicans jumped on the bandwagon. The bill had gained final committee approval the morning before Reagan's announcement. A week after that, the House overwhelmingly approved it, 399 to 17.

The Senate is expected to easily pass a similar measure in the new session.

Legislative attempts to raise the VA to Cabinet level date back 35 years, but the bills generally have died quiet deaths.

Rep. Steve Bartlett (R-Tex.), who voted against the bill, called the House vote an "awful case of congressional pandering to special interest groups . . . . I can't begin to tell you how many colleagues have told me they wish they had the guts to vote against it."

Neither OMB, a traditional opponent of higher veterans benefits, nor the VA sent anyone to testify at House hearings last year.

A knowledgeable Senate source said approval there is likely regardless of the merits because this is an election year.

A main argument for upgrading the VA is that its $27 billion budget, 240,000 employees and constituency of 27 million veterans and 51 million dependents and survivors make it one of the largest federal bureaucracies, which should have presidential access at the Cabinet level.

Solomon said he believes a strong VA is needed to keep alive the all-volunteer Army, because VA benefits are a major incentive to enlistees. "Pride, patriotism, esprit de corps. We need to keep this together . . . . It's like a fraternity . . . it means a lot to the country." He added that without the change, the VA will continue at the mercy of OMB with no access to Reagan when it comes to budget cuts.

A Cabinet-level VA "makes management sense," said R. Jack Powell, executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. He said veterans groups have worked on the issue for years. "It's not a new idea. The field was well-prepared, the seeds well-planted. One day the sun came out."

But opponents note there are no Cabinet-level departments for larger interest groups such as women, minorities or the elderly.

Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), Senate minority whip and former Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, calls the VA budget "the biggest chunk of money that goes to any single segment of American society as I know it." Simpson, expected to oppose the bill, said that when the word "veteran" is mentioned on the floors of Congress, "it's a glandular thing," with any attempt to cut the VA budget leading to charges that "somehow you are antiveteran or less than patriotic."

Opponents also argue that it might make more sense to fold the VA's duties into other departments, with Health and Human Services taking over VA medical duties; Education handling GI education benefits, and Housing and Urban Development taking on the VA mortgage program.

Solomon, who served in the Marine Corps and is ranking minority member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, is given major credit from advocates for moving the legislation through the House. Solomon said he talked "to every single {House} member. I talked to some as many as 10 times."

He said he made a convincing argument by pointing out the big federal budget squeeze, amid skyrocketing medical costs for the aging veteran population and new VA responsibilities for veterans with AIDS.

"When decisions are made on how to allocate the budget, {Cabinet secretaries} are in there fighting for their budgets . . . . There's no one there to defend the veterans budget," Solomon said.

Capitol Hill sources said Solomon helped the bill's chances by joining with Rep. G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.), Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, in persuading Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), never a supporter, to be a sponsor. Brooks is chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, with jurisdiction over the bill.

Some veterans leaders say Brooks "jumped on a moving train" only after it was clear the bill had enough House votes to pass.

Brooks said he was concerned about seven years of Reagan budget cuts and growing problems of veterans in his economically pressed congressional district, where the VA had shown "an uncalled-for callous attitude" in dealing with financially strapped veterans.

"The VA has legal authority to rewrite {home mortgage} loans in a manner that would allow the veterans to keep their homes while continuing to make reduced payments on them. This would have saved the government money because it would have been cheaper than foreclosing on those homes and selling them at a loss. But the VA failed to properly serve those veterans," he said.

Brooks said he became a sponsor largely because he believes that making the VA a Cabinet department will bring increased public scrutiny and congressional oversight.

Mike Leaveck of the Vietnam Veterans of America agrees: "The VA needs a total housecleaning. Additional scrutiny by the press, Congress and the public will help provide that."

Many veterans and members of Congress argue that VA benefits go disproportionately to veterans with noncombat-related problems.

Leaveck complains, for example, that the VA spends much more on research and treatment for liver problems caused by alcoholism than on veterans -- especially from the Vietnam era -- with post-traumatic stress disorder and other war-related psychological ailments.

Simpson said he is "extremely puzzled . . . why a veteran with no combat or hardship duty whatsoever, who injured his knee skiing . . . should have a higher priority for medical care than a combat veteran who was not disabled . . . . It is absolutely absurd in every sense."

Senate sources say that Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, has decided the issue deserves careful deliberation and should not be rubber-stamped.

The sources said the committee likely will draw up its own legislation, and plans a hearing after receiving a two-month study of the issue by the National Academy of Public Administration.

"We'll do our best not to have a rush to judgment," said one Senate source. "But it will be tough . . . . The endorsement of the president really turned up the heat . . . {and} half the committee is up for reelection."Staff writer Bill McAllister contributed to this report.