WASHINGTON — House Democrats voted narrowly today to remove 80-year-old Rep. Melvin Price as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, then installed Rep. Les Aspin, a frequent Pentagon critic, to replace him.
In two votes, younger House Democrats revolted against Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr., who had urged that Price be kept in power despite apparent health problems.
The first vote, 121 to 118, removed Price. Later, by a vote of 125 to 103, the majority party in the House chose Aspin over Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), the most senior member on the committee except for Price.
Aspin, 46, of Wisconsin, was the seventh-ranking Democrat on the committee and had initiated the move to depose Price.
O'Neill had argued that Price should be retained to preserve the seniority system under which members who survive the longest become chairman of the most powerful committees in the House.
But the combination of Price's health and feeling among many Democrats that they need an effective spokesman to counter President Reagan's spiraling defense buildup proved a stronger sentiment.
Aspin made his early reputation in the House as a sharp critic of Pentagon policies in the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, he helped forge a compromise with the Reagan Administration that allowed the controversial MX intercontinental missile to survive. That drew criticism for Aspin from many liberals who said the MX is too expensive and impractical to ever become a major component of the nation's nuclear defense system.
On Thursday, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee voted 24 to 0 with one abstention to recommend that House Democrats retain Price, of Illinois, as chairman of the committee he had headed for a decade despite concerns over his health. (Story, Page 22.)
But Price, who turned 80 New Year's Day, had been criticized privately by some Armed Services members who said he is too old to provide effective leadership. They noted that defense spending and military issues such as the MX missile are expected to be among the most controversial issues facing the House during the next few months.
In a separate vote, Democrats also selected Rep. William H. Gray of Pennsylvania to head the crucial House Budget Committee.
Gray, a 43-year-old lawmaker, succeeds Rep. Jim Jones (D-Okla.), who was prevented by House rules from serving another term as budget chairman.
During a December caucus meeting when Jones lost a bid to change the rules to allow him to serve as chairman again, some black congressmen feared that Gray might be denied the post because he is black. However, no other candidates emerged, and he was chosen without opposition.
As chairman, Gray will be a key figure in the anticipated battle with the White House over the shape of the new budget and ways to trim the deficit, now expected to top $225 billion in the 1986 fiscal year.