Capitol Hill scans new Cabinet faces

With a rustle of ceremony and a banter of cross-examination, the official machinery that will install a new President and Cabinet for the United States later this month has cranked into motion.

The day-old 79th Congress on Jan. 6 officially declared Ronald Reagan and running mate George Bush the winners of the 1980 presidential election, while opening confirmation hearings on nominees for the President-elect's Cabinet.

The burst of activity on Capitol Hill, dormant since the old Congress adjourned three weeks ago, signals the start of a procedural countdown which -- barring snags -- should give the country a fully functioning executive team by the time the new President is inaugurated Jan. 20.

The first day's scrutiny of Reagan's Cabinet choices, moving with dispatch, suggests routine Senate confirmation for at least this initial batch of five prospective department heads.

That optimistic outlook is reinforced by two centuries of legislative history and the brand-new political dynamics of this Congress. The Senate has rejected only eight Cabinet nominees since 1789, and the current chamber is controlled by Reagan's fellow Republicans for the first time in 26 years.

The warmest congressional reception was accorded two nominees long familiar on Capitol Hill: Secretary of Defense-designate Caspar W. Weinberger, who held Cabinet jobs in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and Secretary of Health and Human Services-designate Richard S. Schweiker, until one day earlier a GOP senator from Pennsylvania.

Mr. Weinberger's budget-slashing reputation, from his flinty custodianship of the California and federal budgets -- worrying to some who advocate beefing up the nation's defenses -- was welcomed by Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"No one wants ineffective spending," the diminutive Californian told senators who gently interrogated him from a massive half-moon-shaped dais that arced from one wall of the hearing room to the other.

The cordial questioners included two unsuccessful contenders for his job: committee chairman John G. Tower (R) of Texas and senior minority member Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington.

Meanwhile, one floor up in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Mr. Schweiker was telling a friendly panel of his former Senate colleagues that his first priority upon joining the Reagan Cabinet would be to restore the solvency of the shrinking social security fund. He proposed a long-range overhaul rather than a quick fix, saying what is needed is "strong medicine" instead of a "band-aid approach."

Under gloved probing by the Senate Agriculture committee, Secretary of Agriculture- designate John R. Block softened earlier stances on the federal food stamp program and the embargo of grain sales to the Soviet Union. He also backed away from the specifics of any pruning of food stamps, and qualified his flat rejection of using food embargoes as a foreign policy weapon.

Secretary of Commerce-designate Malcolm Baldrige seemed equally at ease on Capitol Hill, where his father had been a Republican congressman from Nebraska in the 1930s. The Connecticut industrial executive told the Senate Commerce Committee that he would push for deregulation of American business "from top to bottom."

The President-elect's choice for secretary of the Treasury, Donald T. Regan, was to be queried by senators later in the day.

For the President-elect himself, his first day's brush with the constitutional process that will propel him officially into office hardly could have gone more smoothly.

In an anticlimactic, half-hour ceremony, Congress went through the quadrennial formality of counting the votes cast by the presidential electors last month in their state capitals.

The unsurprising outcome was announced by one of the losers, outgoing Vice-President Walter F. Mondale, saddled with the unhappy constitutional duty of presiding at the ceremony: 489 votes for Messrs. Reagan and Bush to 49 for President Carter and Mr. Mondale.

The ritual marks a satisfying political turnabout for Reagan. His 489 electoral votes, carted to the floor of the House of Representatives in two breadbox-sized chests of polished wood, are 488 more than he garnered in this same ceremony four years ago.

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