Washington girds for impending duel over social issues

Washington lumps them together -- "the social issues." Controversial, emotional, and divisive, they range from abortion, school prayer, and tuition tax credits to school busing. President Reagan postponed them for more urgent matters.

Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee and the 53-member Senate Republican caucus decided this spring to keep the way clear for the economic package.

But now Mr. Reagan has achieved his immediate economic objectives. When Congress comes back from its August recess, it will face the next category on the President's legislative list: social issues.

Speaking before the Conservative Political Action Conference last March, Reagan seemed to put social issues on a par with the defense buildup and the budget package.

"We do not have a separate social agenda, a separate economic agenda, and a separate foreign agenda," he told them. "We have one agenda.

"Just as surely as we seek to put our financial house in order and rebuild our nation's defenses, so, too, we seek to protect the unborn, to end the manipulation of schoolchildren by utopian planners, and permit the acknowledgment of a supreme being in our classrooms."

Reagan has strong ideological feelings on the subject, just as he has on taxes and budget: He wants taxes reduced partly for economic reasons, but in the larger context he favors a smaller federal budget because he wants a smaller federal government. On some of the social issues he has affirmed his position repeatedly. The magazine Church and State compiled his record on three.

* As California's governor he favored tax aid for religious schools. He advocated a voucher plan to provide state aid, which did not pass.

* In 1972 he approved a tuition tax credit law that would have distributed $ 50 million a year to parochial and private schools. A federal district court ruled the law unconstitutional and the US Supreme Court reached the same conclusion in another case.(In the same way, the record shows that Jimmy Carter, as governor of Georgia, favored government sponsored school prayer.)

* On abortion, Reagan signed a liberalized abortion law in California in 1967 but subsequently changed position. He favors a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions except those necessary to save a mother's life.

There is no direct connection between most social issues. They include such proposals as reconsideration of fair housing codes, a two-tiered minimum wage, and various categorical federal grants to the states intended to deal with specific poverty problems.

Some of these surfaced in the budget battle, such as the unsuccessful drive to eliminate the Legal Service Corporation (set up by Congress in 1974 to fund legal services for the poor in civil matters). Many programs, such as abortion, have dedicated, single-interest, tax-exempt lobbies behind them.

There is a conservative tendency to support Reagan's philosophy that Washington has grown too big, that federal government should be curbed, and that the nation needs a period of decentralization.

Right-wing GOP Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, using modern direct-mail techniques and cooperating with fundamentalist-Christian movements such as Moral Majority, has set up a series of organizations that give funds and political support. His interests extend into foreign affairs. He is expected to play an important behind-the- scenes role in the social issue fight now shaping. On the other side of the fray are such liberal groups as Common Cause, Americans for Democratic Action, and the National Co mmittee for an Effective Congress.

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