WASHINGTON — House Democrats, locked in a fierce ideological struggle over the direction of their party's defense policy, narrowly voted Wednesday to oust a leading moderate voice--Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin--as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The dramatic and surprising 130-124 vote was a major victory for liberals who complained that Aspin had not stood strongly enough against President Reagan's policies during his two years as chairman. Ironically, many of those same liberals had been Aspin's key supporters in his successful 1985 drive to unseat Chairman Melvin Price (D-Ill.), who was then 80 and considered too frail to provide vigorous leadership.
However, Aspin's initial defeat does not necessarily portend a liberal takeover of the chairmanship. While the crucial votes in the secret ballot apparently came from liberals, it was conservative Rep. Marvin Leath (D-Tex.) who engineered the drive against Aspin and is a candidate for the post himself.
Liberals see the next two years as their best chance at curbing the President's military buildup of the past six years and rearranging his spending priorities, while conservatives hope to change what they fear are perceptions that their party is weak on defense.
Aspin himself will have a chance to regain the chairmanship later this month in what is shaping up to be a four-way race for the job.
"I think it's a good shot," he said.
He conceded that many of the votes against him may have reflected strong dissatisfaction with his style of committee leadership. Many liberals had complained that Aspin--whose own ascension to the chairmanship had been a rare breach of the House seniority system--had broken faith with them by taking the committee too far in a conservative direction. They were particularly bitter over the chairman's support of the MX missile and Nicaragua's contras .
'A Good Device'
Aspin said that Wednesday's vote, a decision on his retention that did not pit him against other candidates, was "a good device to send a message. It was sent and received. It's a message about dealing with other members of the House."
However, even some of Aspin's supporters said the vote may have been more than symbolic and suggested that it may already be too late for him to rebound.
"When you know it's that close, it's too late to send a signal," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who told reporters that he had voted for Aspin. " . . . If Aspin stays in (the race), he pretty much guarantees Leath wins."
Other committee members who have said they will definitely join the race are Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.), the most senior member of the committee after Price, and Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.), who said he hopes to pick up votes from liberals and moderates.
A Grasp of Intricacies
"It's a wide-open election now," said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. The chairmanless Armed Services Committee canceled a hearing that had been scheduled for today.
Aspin, who was a Pentagon analyst during the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration, has a grasp of the intricacies of the military Establishment that few on Capitol Hill can rival. However, many critics have complained that he has not been bold enough in staking out a Democratic alternative to Reagan's defense policies.
Discontent with Aspin had become apparent early last year. In a discussion of the military budget last May, Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.) complained that Aspin "tries to please liberals whenever he has their ear and he tries to please conservatives when they have his ear."
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) had summed up Wednesday's vote as a matter of trust. "That was the main word out there," she told reporters. Schroeder, a liberal who had supported Aspin after expressing misgivings about his leadership last year, added that she may seek the chairmanship if Aspin drops out of the race.
An Unusual Coalition
Leath, who ranks 14th in seniority among the 27 committee Democrats, has been supported by an unusual coalition of disaffected liberals and conservatives. His public backers have also included the chairmen of five of the eight Armed Services subcommittees, an indication of how little support Aspin enjoyed on his own committee.
Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), one of more than 50 Democrats campaigning for Leath, explained that despite his basic disagreement with Leath on most issues, "he's a pretty stingy guy when it comes to spending money," which appealed to "people like myself, who are left of center" on defense spending.
In his tenure on the House Budget Committee, Leath has "been the catalyst for bringing people together," added Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), another liberal who has worked for Leath.
"I frankly think that Leath has the momentum now and he will be the next chairman of Armed Services," Matsui said.
Poising for Battle
However, Aspin's chances appear strong if the other contenders divide the support of those who oppose him.
"I had 124 votes, and I'm the second choice of some of the 130 others," Aspin said.
The turmoil among Democrats occurs at a time when leaders of the newly Democratic Congress are poising to battle Reagan on issues that vary from funding for his space-based Strategic Defense Initiative, known as "Star Wars," to establishing new arms control policies.
The Armed Services Committee, traditionally one of the most conservative in Congress, is likely to figure at the center of many of these crucial debates.
The chairmanship fight aside, "it's been an increasingly liberal committee, and it will continue to get so--it's inexorable," Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento) said.