Washington — Senate Republicans chose a centrist who has sometimes differed publicly with President Reagan as their new majority leader, the official who will be most responsible for guiding the presidential program through Congress.
Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, a skillful legislator and one of his party's most visible national leaders, succeeds Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee, who is retiring from the Senate.
The new leader, elected by secret ballot by the 53 GOP senators Wednesday, inherits an upper chamber that has grown increasingly unruly during the tenure of the genial Senator Baker. The election of the witty but often sharp-tongued Senator Dole could be evidence that the Republicans are seeking more discipline for the Senate.
Although the heated, five-man race for the majority leader spot was conducted largely by private calls and visits, one issue has come to the fore. Senators say they are weary of procedural loopholes that permit lone dissenters to tie up the Senate in knots.
Sen. Dan Quayle (R) of Indiana, who has headed a task force on reform of Senate procedures, said Dole had made no commitment to specific changes. But Senator Quayle credited the Kansan for having the ability to make the Senate machinery work.
''If Bob Dole can get a consensus among Republicans on what is doable,'' Quayle said, then he would be most likely to achieve that goal. ''He has been a master at legislative maneuverings on the floor.''
The new leader, who is in his third Senate term, has been a highly successful negotiator on tough legislation, often pulling out victories from apparently hopeless deadlocks. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he persuaded the most powerful tax opponent, President Reagan, and an alliance of Republicans and Democrats to pass one of the biggest tax hikes in history. Moreover, it happened during 1982, a congressional election year.
Although a consistent conservative in his Senate voting record, Dole has also been a bridge to liberals. During discussions on extending the Voting Rights Act , probably the most important civil rights law, he fashioned a compromise that brought the White House on board and ensured passage of the bill.
Ironically, Dole has the strongest personal tie to the Reagan administration, since his wife is Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole. And yet, the senator was the most clearly independent of the White House among the majority leader candidates, who included, in order of their vote count, Sens. Ted Stevens of Alaska, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, and James A. McClure of Idaho.
In fact, Senator McClure ran as the member who thinks most like the President , but he received the fewest votes.
Dole told reporters yesterday that his relations with the White House are ''good.'' But the often-blunt Dole has in the past made no secret of disagreements with the White House, especially on tax and budget matters. He has sometimes aimed his barbed humor at ''supply-siders,'' who argue that tax cuts and economic growth will balance the budget. He has also been a chief target of the ''young Turks,'' House Republicans who have accused him of raising taxes to pay for Democratic programs.
But just after his election as majority leader, Dole said of tax increases: ''I share the President's view that they have to be a matter of last resort.'' Dole also said that ''deficit reduction is on top of everybody's agenda.''
He praised the new proposal by Treasury Department officials for a simplified income tax without embracing the plan. ''Certainly they get an 'A' for effort.''
The Senate GOP elections produced apparent victories for moderate voices of the party, which only a few months ago had been almost silenced.
Chosen as assistant majority leader, or whip, is Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, who, while a solid conservative, has never aligned himself with the New Right on social issues such as abortion. He is known chiefly for his folksy speaking style and his efforts to pass an immigration reform bill.
A Senate moderate, John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, won the post of Republican conference chairman, replacing the conservative McClure. And another moderate, Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, takes over the GOP's senatorial campaign committee. Sen. William Armstrong (R) of Colorado, a conservative, will be the new chairman of the Republican Policy Committee.
The Dole election to majority leader will trigger one major committee change. Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, a fiscal conservative who has fought with the White House on behalf of civil rights causes, becomes the new Senate Finance chairman.
The Dole choice also likely closes the door for dramatic change at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Jesse Helms (R), the New Right leader from North Carolina, has indicated privately that he will stay at the Agriculture Committee, rather than give the agriculture post to Senator Lugar, who is next in line. Senator Lugar, therefore, will be the new Foreign Relations chairman, replacing Sen. Charles Percy (R) of Illinois, who lost his bid for a new Senate term.