Making policy on day care is far from child's play. If official Washington ever thought it would be easy, it is learning differently now. Under all the pressures that an election year brings, Congress and the Reagan administration are trying to decide what they think of day-care needs across America, and what - if anything - they should and can do about unmet needs. Republicans are in particular disagreement on the dimensions of the problem and on what should be done.
Some Republican perspectives came into the open last Friday afternoon when Secretary of Labor Ann McLaughlin released, notwithstanding the objections of a few conservatives, a departmental task force report that assessed the national day-care situation.
The report found that day care is, in Secretary McLaughlin's words, ``a terrific national concern,'' but not a national crisis: ``Real child-care problems exist, but there is not an across-the-board shortage'' of child care throughout America.
Other Republican views will be presented this week in a hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee. Witnesses are expected to express a more conservative Republican position: that in general the supply-and-demand market in day care works quite well, and no need exists for further federal action.
The Labor Department report concluded that three specific types of shortages do exist: in care of infants, care of sick children whose parents work, and care of school-age children between the time school lets out and a parent returns home from work.
Some conservatives privately admit fears that such a conclusion could lead Mrs. McLaughlin eventually to throw her support to some present or future congressional proposal to provide more federal funds for day care.
McLaughlin says she will be using the findings in the report to analyze the more than 100 bills already in Congress that relate to child care. ``We will be doing that in the weeks ahead,'' she says, adding that it is ``really premature to say'' which proposal, if any, she will support.
Democrats generally know what they want to do: provide more federal money to increase the number of day-care centers and to help parents pay the costs, which can be $3,000 a year. Many Democrats in Congress broadly support the proposal of Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan that would provide $2.5 billion for these purposes.
However, no one else knows where they will be able to find the money. Many Republicans in Washington suspect that Democrats are simply playing election- year politics - talking up a program that, in the end, won't come to fruition because the government will not be able to finance it.
In any case, Republicans, both in Congress and the Reagan administration, are in more internal disagreement: ``They're all over the map'' in their views, admits one congressional Republican staff member.
Some Republicans support the proposal of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah and Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R) of Connecticut, which would provide $250 million in the first year to states to be given as grants to child-care centers or as vouchers to parents. Other Republicans oppose any federal aid at all.
McLaughlin has made clear that she intends to be a player as Republicans reach their conclusion. Her task force completed its report within three months, an uncommonly short time in Washington. She says that along the way she regularly briefed White House chief of staff Howard Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen.
She also has discussed the issue with both Secretary of Education William Bennett and President Reagan.
And now, she says, she intends to continue to discuss the issue with other Cabinet secretaries, and to analyze bills in Congress in light of the findings of her report.