Richard S. Schweiker, a Pennsylvania Republican who served in both chambers of Congress and as health and human services secretary under President Ronald Reagan, who had unexpectedly tapped him as a running mate during a failed 1976 White House bid, died July 31 at a hospital in Pomona, N.J. He was 89.
He had complications from an infection, said a daughter, Kyle Hard. Mr. Schweiker had homes in McLean, Va., and Ocean City, N.J.
Mr. Schweiker was an executive in his family’s Pennsylvania tile company before launching a career in politics, an ambition that he traced to the death of his brother in World War II. That loss, he said, had taught him “that we are affected by things outside our own sphere.”
He won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1960, defeating an incumbent Republican, John A. Lafore Jr., in a suburban Philadelphia district. Mr. Schweiker went on to serve four terms in the House, where he developed what the Almanac of American Politics described as a “conventional Republican record.”
In 1968, Mr. Schweiker ran for the Senate and unseated Joseph S. Clark, a Democrat and former Philadelphia mayor who had angered some voters by supporting gun control legislation. In the Senate, Mr. Schweiker opposed gun control and abortion rights but moved noticeably leftward on other issues, developing a profile as a Republican liberal.
He had earlier served on the House Armed Services Committee, co-authoring a proposal to end the draft and build an all-volunteer military force, and joined its Senate counterpart, where he took dovish positions on the Vietnam War.
Sometimes described as a maverick, Mr. Schweiker frequently opposed Republican President Richard M. Nixon, voting against the nominations of Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. and G. Harrold Carswell for the U.S. Supreme Court and calling on Nixon to resign during the Watergate scandal.
Mr. Schweiker became the ranking Republican on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and on the appropriations subcommittee that had jurisdiction over health-related spending. He developed an expertise in medical issues and became known as one of the Senate’s most liberal Republicans.
Weeks before the 1976 Republican convention, Reagan, the former California governor seeking his party’s nomination for president, introduced Mr. Schweiker as his proposed running mate. The decision was surprising, because candidates do not traditionally announce vice presidential running mates before a convention and because Mr. Schweiker’s politics differed so markedly from Reagan’s conservatism.
Mr. Schweiker described the partnership as a “coalition.”
“We’re the first to unite the conservatives and the moderates,” he said at the time. “It’s the first time we’ve bridged the gap.”
The partnership did not appear popular among Republican delegates, however, and Mr. Schweiker offered to step aside. Reagan declined and eventually lost the nomination to President Gerald R. Ford. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat and former Georgia governor, defeated Ford in the general election.
Four years later, Reagan ran for president again — with George H.W. Bush, a former Texas congressman and CIA director, as his running mate — and won the first of his two terms in the White House. Mr. Schweiker did not seek reelection in 1980 and the next year joined the Reagan Cabinet as chief of the Department of Health and Human Services.
In that office, Mr. Schweiker clashed with the Office of Management and Budget, which had pushed for large-scale spending cuts. Mr. Schweiker supported certain reductions in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits. But he supported funding for medical research, particularly for the National Institutes of Health and the Public Health Service, and was credited with preserving funding for the Head Start early-childhood program.
“Dick Schweiker has been a good friend and colleague for many years,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said when Mr. Schweiker stepped down from that post in 1983. “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.”
Richard Schultz Schweiker was born in Norristown, Pa., on June 1, 1926. His family was descended from members of the Schwenkfelder Church who came to the United States in the 18th century, fleeing persecution in Germany.
He served on a Navy aircraft carrier during World War II and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Pennsylvania State University in 1950. Before beginning his political career, he worked for American Olean Tile, co-founded by his father.
After his government retirement, Mr. Schweiker was president of the American Council of Life Insurance until his retirement in 1994.
His wife of 57 years, Claire Coleman Schweiker, an early hostess of the children’s television show “Romper Room” in Philadelphia, died in 2013.
Survivors include five children, Malcolm Schweiker of Oak Hill, Va., Lani Shelton of Herndon, Va., Kyle Hard of Fairfax City, Va., Richard S. Schweiker Jr. of Richmond, Va., and Kristi Carey of Napa, Calif.; a sister; 23 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.