Sen. Robert Dole earned a reputation as a miracle worker in the last Congress when he persuaded Republicans to join Democrats and pass one of history's biggest tax increases, all in an election year.
But the tax bill looks almost small compared with his next challenge. The Republican from Kansas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is now trying to forge an agreement on solving the nation's social security crisis.
Even as others have given up on the President's Social Security Commission, Senator Dole is meeting daily in secret with commission members and Democrats in a last-minute drive to find a compromise. He has gone to the White House to urge the President to deal first with social security.
''I really believe that for the first time, with all this media attention on social security, the recipients know now that the thing's really in trouble,'' the lawmaker said. ''We're borrowing billions of dollars just to make the payments. Nobody's playing games any more in social security. The demagogues are quiet.''
Speaking on a range of issues facing the new Congress, the Kansas senator sat in a brown-and-salmon office decorated with help from his wife, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, a White House adviser who has just been named the new secretary of transportation. (Senator Dole, with a typical understatement, calls the appointment an ''excellent choice.'')
Looking at the bright side of the social security talks, he points to the areas of agreement. ''Everybody knows it's a problem,'' he says, and that the cash shortage will be ''between $150 and $200 billion between now and 1990.''
''Everyone knows [the answer] is going to be some change on the tax side,'' he said, suggesting that even President Reagan might be persuaded go along. The Dole strategy is to call the reform a ''tax modification,'' not a new tax.
''From the standpoint of the President, I don't think he's looking at new taxes,'' said Dole. ''All you've got to do is look at the Carter tax increase in 1977.''