WASHINGTON — Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) Tuesday locked up the race for majority leadership of the new Democratic-controlled Senate when his only declared rival, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, dropped a bid to oppose him.
Byrd hailed Johnston's announcement, saying that it "allows Democrats in the Senate to move into next week's caucus and the challenges of the 100th Congress as a unified party. Working together, Senate Democrats can meet these challenges."
To Meet on Nov. 20
Only last week, Johnston had predicted that he could have the backing of as many as 28 of the Senate's 55 Democrats when they caucus on Nov. 20 to choose leaders for the next two years.
But, speaking to reporters Tuesday, he acknowledged that his support had eroded in recent days as Byrd sought pledges and some Democrats, suspecting that the 68-year-old Byrd might retire in two years, shied away from anointing a new leader at this time.
Johnston said that his withdrawal would save his supporters from risking the wrath of Byrd, whose clout will be considerably enhanced as majority leader. "If you don't have the votes, why make your friends walk the plank?" Johnston asked rhetorically.
Held Post Earlier
The move means that Byrd will regain the majority leader's position he held from 1977 until 1981, when Republicans won control of the Senate and he was demoted to minority leader. Control of the chamber shifted back to the Democrats in the Nov. 4 elections.
Byrd has a reputation as a masterful political tactician; but Johnston and some other Democrats have long cited his stodgy speaking style and a lack of media savvy, which, they contended, handicapped Democrats in battling the image-conscious Reagan Administration.
On Tuesday, Johnston sought to downplay such criticism. "Every candidate has strong and weak points," he said. " . . . Sen. Byrd himself has said he's not Charlton Heston, and I'm not either, so that makes two of us."
With Byrd as majority leader, California Sen. Alan Cranston, now Byrd's assistant as minority whip, will become majority whip. Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Inouye seems a cinch to be reelected chairman of the Democratic caucus, the No. 3 leadership spot.
Wright Seen as Speaker
In the House, Texan Jim Wright, the current majority leader, seems a sure bet to succeed retiring Rep. Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts as Speaker. Washington Democrat Thomas S. Foley, the present whip, is expected to become majority leader. And Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced) is widely seen as the front-runner for Foley's whip job, although Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) is believed to have also amassed significant support.
Johnston will assume the chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Other key Democratic Senate chairmen will be Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts as head of the Labor and Human Resources Committee; Lawton Chiles of Florida, Budget Committee; Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Judiciary; Sam Nunn of Georgia, Armed Services; Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Foreign Relations; William Proxmire of Wisconsin, Banking, and Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Finance.