Congress packs its bags for the holiday break this week, and it may leave town before delivering an important Christmas gift: the restoration of the minimum social security benefit to 3 million Americans.
President Reagan says he wants to restore it. Both houses have voted to reinstate the $122-a-month benefit, which goes to many older women, many of them low-income. But House and Senate members are deadlocked over how to pay the expense.
''I don't know whether we're going to have any resolve of that question or not'' before the break, said J. J. Pickle, (D) of Texas, chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee, last week. Unless the two sides reach an accord in the next day or two, Congress will probably have no chance to act until February , only weeks before the Mar. 1 date when the minimum benefit is scheduled to be cut off.
Congress first set the minimum benefit to help the elderly poor who had worked only sporadically and at very low wages. About a third of the recipients live at or just above the poverty line and rely heavily on minimum social security checks which range from $122 to $170 a month. Loss of that benefit would plunge an estimated 1 million older persons below the poverty level.
Congress voted to kill the benefit last March in response to a presidential budget request, but the move proved so controversial that both the administration and lawmakers have been backtracking ever since.
How to restore the payment is still far from settled. The only clear point of agreement as of the beginning of this week is that current recipients should continue to receive their monthly checks without any cut. If Congress fails to act before Christmas, the Social Security Administration will send letters to 3 million recipients warning that their benefits will be cut back to levels based on their work records starting March 1.
Meanwhile, each month an estimated 4,000 new persons qualify for the minimum retirement benefit and cannot receive it. Congressional sources hold out little hope that these newcomers will ever receive the minimum benefit. Congress, when it finally reinstates the benefit, will almost certainly keep most newcomers off the rolls. Future retirees should not count on the minimum benefit, say staffers on both sides of Capitol Hill. These new retirees will receive only the social security pensions they have actually earned, instead of possibly higher payments under the minimum benefit, which insures a ''bottom line'' for recipients.
Many of the new retirees coming on the rolls for minimum benefits have a much better financial picture. Increasingly, these new recipients have other sources of funds, such as government pensions.
James M. Hacking, lobbyist for the politically powerful American Association of Retired Persons, says his group's chief concern has been for those now on the rolls. ''You should never take away from someone a benefit that he is already receiving,'' he says, conceding that future retirees will probably not receive the minimum benefit.
Just keeping current recipients on the rolls will be a major feat. Senators led by Finance Committee chairman Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, insist on raising $ 6 billion to $7 billion to pay for the minimum benefit over the next five years. One method would be taxing sick pay and lowering the ceiling for social security payments to each family.
The House leadership has sent back a signal that it will not permit any cutbacks in social security, period. It would go along only on the sick pay tax, but that revenue would fall about $2 billion short.
While the standoff continues, a Senate-House conference has met only twice and made little progress. A tentative meeting is set for Dec. 14, which may be the last chance for Congress to wrap up this package in time for Christmas.