WASHINGTON — Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) announced today that he has abandoned his challenge to Sen. Robert C. Byrd for the job of majority leader in the 100th Congress, leaving Byrd unopposed for the post.
"I do not believe I have the votes," Johnston told reporters in giving up his attempt to replace Byrd, of West Virginia, who has led the Democrats in the Senate for nearly a decade.
Johnston added that Byrd had projected "an aura of electability" that slowed any momentum he might have had among incoming Democratic senators.
He added that without sufficient votes, he did not want to put those who supported him in an uncomfortable position by carrying on the race.
Party Unity Expressed
"If you don't have the votes, you might as well not make your friends walk the plank," Johnston said.
Meanwhile, Johnston, who said his withdrawal also was aimed at showing "a little unity for the party," tried to play down criticisms that Byrd's reserved style does not serve Democrats well in a television-conscious atmosphere.
"Every candidate, every President, every politician, every senator is a combination of strengths and weaknesses," Johnston said. "And I can tell you Sen. Robert Byrd has formidable strengths. Now I don't count as his strongest point his ability to look like Charleton Heston on television, but that is not the only thing and probably not the most important thing."
Heads Energy Panel
Although he is giving up his campaign to be majority leader, Johnston will take over the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, an attractive spot for a senator representing a state dependent on the fortunes of the petroleum industry.
Johnston's move leaves Byrd unopposed to be chosen majority leader at the Democrats' organizational meeting on Nov. 20, which coincidentally is Byrd's 69th birthday.
In addition, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's announcement last weekend that he will take the chairmanship of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, all major Senate slots have been settled for the new Congress that convenes Jan. 6. Democrats will have a 55-45 edge over Republicans, making it the first time since 1980 that the Senate will be under Democratic control.
Will Seek Initiative
Byrd had said repeatedly over the last six weeks that if Democrats regained control of the Senate, they would put together a comprehensive agenda of domestic and foreign policy issues to try to capture the legislative initiative from the White House early next year.
Major initiatives Byrd has mentioned include trade legislation to help industries hurt by imports, programs to help financially embattled farmers, ratification of pending nuclear test ban treaties and overhaul of political campaign finance laws.