WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler, the victim of her record as a moderate on social issues and her support for such programs as AIDS research within the Reagan Administration, bowed to President Reagan's wishes Tuesday and agreed to become ambassador to Ireland.
Heckler, in giving up her Cabinet post for a job she had said publicly she did not want, joined Reagan in an appearance before reporters to call the foreign post an honor and a "new facet of public service." Insisting that she had the option of remaining in her Cabinet post, she said that she had concluded it would have been irresponsible for her to decline the President's offer to become ambassador.
Reagan, contradicting reports that the White House staff had found Heckler insufficiently conservative for many of the President's staunch political supporters and unable to manage her huge bureaucracy, sternly denied that Heckler had been forced out or that White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan had pushed for her removal.
"I think Mrs. Heckler was justifiably upset by the kind of gossip that was going around," the President said. "It was malicious. It was false."
"She has done a fine job at HHS," Reagan declared. "As a matter of fact, if she hadn't done such a good job, I wouldn't have been so eager to seek her out to be the ambassador to Ireland."
But outside the White House, members of Congress and lobbyists said that Heckler lost her Cabinet job because she could not walk the fine line between the Administration's conservative positions and her own beliefs.
Heckler will earn $70,000 a year as an ambassador, a cut from her $86,200 salary as a Cabinet member.
Heckler, praised by liberals and conservatives alike outside the Administration for her work at HHS, was generally described as a team player who vigorously pressed her own views within the Administration but then worked tirelessly in public to promote official Reagan policies, even when that meant defending budget cuts before hostile congressional committees.
"She tried to burn the candle at both ends, to stay on board with this Administration and also show compassion on social issues," one lobbyist said. "But she couldn't have it both ways."
'Carried the Flag'
A Republican congressional aide said: "Margaret Heckler carried the flag for this Administration. But she never fit in with the true-blue conservatives."
During her 2 1/2 years at Health and Human Services, which administers the nation's health and welfare programs at an annual cost of $330 billion, Heckler urged the White House to yield to congressional pressure not to slash the rolls of the Social Security disability program. Congress ultimately thwarted the Administration's efforts.
Long before anyone else in the Administration, Heckler recommended more funding for AIDS-related research. A congressional aide said that Heckler fought within the Administration to increase federal funds for AIDS research by $45 million but was blocked by the Office of Management and Budget, which "forced her to cave in."
Heckler is given credit for winning presidential approval of legislation cracking down on absent fathers who do not pay child support. And in recent months, she was planning new programs to call attention to the problems of Alzheimer's disease and breast cancer.
Defended Budget Cuts
At the same time, Heckler defended the Administration's efforts to cut deeply into her agency's budget. Eventually, Heckler's advocacy "got her into hot water" with White House officials, according to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Education and Labor subcommittee on health.
Waxman and other Democrats took Heckler's removal as a victory for conservative critics of health and welfare programs. The White House staff, Waxman said, "looks at health care as only one more place to slash programs."
Waxman said that Heckler, appearing before his subcommittee, disputed the arguments of the "right-to-life" movement that federal family planning program funds were being misused to promote abortions. "I'm sure it angered the anti-abortion forces that have the ear of the White House," he said.
Rep. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, a Republican on the Ways and Means subcommittee on health, suggested that Regan and other White House staffers had orchestrated Heckler's ouster because they felt her advocacy and feisty personal style were out of step with the White House.
Heckler "stepped on the sensibilities of some of the unelected individuals down at the White House," Gregg said. "She has been, according to them, unloyal or disloyal, and for this she must be burned at the stake, or at the minimum sent to Ireland."
Irene Natividad, head of the National Woman's Political Caucus, praised Heckler for calling national attention to such issues as AIDS and child support. She said Heckler had been "a voice of conscience" for the Administration.