For almost two days, the marathon meeting of the National Commission on Social Security Reform (NCSSR) had been characterized by soporific droning.
Then, in a sudden, crackling exchange, a few members began debating the merits of fixing the nation's troubled retirement system with new taxes. TV cameramen sprang into action. Lobbyists dropped their crossword puzzles and began scribbling notes furiously. But Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas quickly reached out and stopped the argument.
''This demonstrates the real problem,'' he said. ''We're about where we were eight months ago. If we're going to save the social security system, some appropriate trade-offs must be found. That's the challenge to this commission - and the challenge to Congress.''
The commission's three-day session ended without agreement on a package of social security reforms. But the panel did agree on the size of the problem. And delicate, behind-the-scenes negotiations indicated that congressional leaders, facing up to a difficult task, have begun to move on fixing the nation's troubled retirement system.
For more than a year, members of Congress and President Reagan, when asked what to do about social security, have demurred by saying, ''I'm waiting for the report of the National Commission on Social Security.''
Now, after the November midterm elections, politicians' need for a political screen covering the issue has lessened - while the system's problems have become more acute. Thus key senators and representatives have begun outlining the sort of social security reform package they'd like to see.
Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, in a letter to his colleagues last week said large deficits precluded using general revenue from the Treasury to pay social security benefits. Liberals have traditionally favored such a move. Mr. Rostenkowski also opposed major social security tax increases, while leaving the door open for raising revenue through other, smaller taxes.
Senator Dole, Finance Committee chairman and an NCSSR member, says he's ready for Congress to address the issue ''today.''
Republicans, on the whole, oppose fixing the system through infusions of new revenue, but Dole says ''I'm willing to bring new taxes up'' as part of a ''combination of things'' to repair social security.
The National Commission, meanwhile, will apparently settle for defining the problem and providing various packages of options, rather than proposing one sweeping set of solutions.
''We accomplished less than I had hoped for, but more than I realistically expected,'' said NCSSR chairman Alan Greenspan at the end of the Nov. 11-13 session.
The commission agreed that social security will need $150 billion to $200 billion to tide it safely through the decade, and that the system faces a long-term shortfall of 1.8 percent of the income subject to social security tax between now and 2055.
Robert Ball, former social security commissioner and leader of the Democrats on the panel, says there is only a 50-50 chance that the NCSSR will produce a report by consensus. Sen. William L. Armstrong (R) of Colorado, chairman of the social security subcommittee and a commission member, says there is but ''a remote possibility'' that the panel will agree on one package of reforms.
''If I had to guess, I'd say our report will be a definition of the problem, plus scholarship'' on various options, Mr. Armstrong says.
Chairman Greenspan is circulating among members a three-page memo outlining eight ways to meet the short-term cash-flow crunch. The solutions cover the spectrum from a package of all revenue increases to one of all benefit changes.
In addition, commission Democrats proffered a package comprising, among other things, a moving forward of some portion of payroll taxes currently scheduled for 1985 and 1990, bringing new federal employees into the system, and deferring cost-of-living increases from July to October.
The Democratic package was sent to the White House for comment. Dole indicated it depended too heavily on new taxes to please Republicans.
In any case, NCSSR members now emphasize their work will be carried on in concert with the White House and the congressional leadership.
''Without their support, anything we do here will founder,'' says commission member Sen. John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania.