Washington — Sen. Robert Dole earned a reputation as a miracle worker in the last Congress when he persuaded Republicans to join Democrats and pass one of history's biggest tax increases, all in an election year.
But the tax bill looks almost small compared with his next challenge. The Republican from Kansas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is now trying to forge an agreement on solving the nation's social security crisis.
Even as others have given up on the President's Social Security Commission, Senator Dole is meeting daily in secret with commission members and Democrats in a last-minute drive to find a compromise. He has gone to the White House to urge the President to deal first with social security.
''I really believe that for the first time, with all this media attention on social security, the recipients know now that the thing's really in trouble,'' the lawmaker said. ''We're borrowing billions of dollars just to make the payments. Nobody's playing games any more in social security. The demagogues are quiet.''
Speaking on a range of issues facing the new Congress, the Kansas senator sat in a brown-and-salmon office decorated with help from his wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, a White House adviser who has just been named the new secretary of transportation. (Senator Dole, with a typical understatement, calls the appointment an ''excellent choice.'')
Looking at the bright side of the social security talks, he points to the areas of agreement. ''Everybody knows it's a problem,'' he says, and that the cash shortage will be ''between $150 and $200 billion between now and 1990.''
''Everyone knows [the answer] is going to be some change on the tax side,'' he said, suggesting that even President Reagan might be persuaded go along. The Dole strategy is to call the reform a ''tax modification,'' not a new tax.
''From the standpoint of the President, I don't think he's looking at new taxes,'' said Dole. ''All you've got to do is look at the Carter tax increase in 1977.''
The social security tax increases passed under President Carter go into effect gradually through 1990. They were once seen as putting social security on a firm footing through the end of the century.
''What we have to do with the 'Carter' taxes is to accelerate them and maybe change the mix a little,'' said Dole. ''Maybe the '90 tax would be a little less , the earlier tax (increase) a little more.''
''You're modifying taxes that are already in place,'' he said, conceding that the term sounds like ''revenue enhancement,'' a euphemism for tax increase. But he argued, ''These are taxes that were passed in '77 and just by happenstance they were based on too rosy assumptions.''
During a trip to the White House earlier this week, Dole said, he and fellow Republican senators told the President that ''nobody's talking about reducing present benefits. We're talking about maybe slowing the growth of future benefits. But no one's going to receive less than they're receiving today.''
Dole, who has been stumping publicly for months on the issue, holds that Congress could smooth the way for itself by reaching an accord now. Then the President could insert figures into his '84 budget, due this month, based on that agreement.
Both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill say they want to put the social security problem at rest soon. But is there a will to set aside differences now? ''There's a wish, but not a will,'' said Dole, who quickly adds , ''I should say there's a hope.''
On other issues he offered these observations:
* The budget: ''I think we have to show budget restraint. . . . The markets are going to respond accordingly. If they see these great big, big deficits in the out years of $250 or $250 billion, interest rates are going to go up.''
* The President's firm stand on domestic cuts and the defense buildup: ''If he compromised with every group that came in down there, he'd end up at the table with no cards to play. . . . I think in the final analysis, you're going to see a more flexible President.''