In a Ramada Inn ballroom in Alexandria, Va., 15 people have gathered this week to set the stage for what promises to be the first explosive issue facing the next Congress - social security.
On Thursday, this small group - the National Commission on Social Security Reform (NCSSR) - began writing down its recommendations for fixing the troubled retirement system. Agreement is by no means certain.
''Since March, we've been walking down a narrowing corridor,'' says a commission source. ''There are now just a few doors you can open. It may take a few days for some of the (commission) members to realize that.''
The commission's three-day meeting is taking place against a background of continued political bickering. Many Republicans say Democrats profited handsomely in the Nov. 2 elections by charging that the GOP planned to cut social security benefits. GOP Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, the Finance Committee chairman and a NCSSR member, said recently that ''I don't want to be trapped by making recommendations in the commission that are going to come back to haunt us in 1984.''
Some observers fear election rhetoric has scuttled chances that Congress can form a consensus around a set of solutions for the system, especially if the commission can't produce bipartisan support for either raising social security taxes or cutting the rate of benefit growth.
The system will need close to $200 billion in new revenue to stay alfloat through 1990, when its current short-term financing crush should end.
''There are only three possibilities (for raising the large amounts of money needed),'' says a commission source. The first option, moving forward the scheduled 1990 social security tax increase to 1984, would raise $133 billion by 1989, estimates an NCSSR staff paper.
The second, capping cost-of-living adjustments at 4 percent for 1983 and '84 and linking them to the increase in wages minus 1.5 percent, would raise $100 billion. A third choice, bringing federal and nonprofit institution employees into the system, would raise $62 billion.