WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. Les Aspin regained his chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, surviving a bruising battle that liberals say will make him a stronger and more determined opponent of President Reagan's defense policies.
Liberal members asserted themselves earlier this month and helped oust the Wisconsin moderate as chairman of the important committee. And they asserted themselves again Thursday by supporting his reinstatement after he pledged to be more attentive to their interests.
"It clearly will be a leftward tilt . . . . He clearly owes the liberals," said Rep. Charles Wilson of Texas, a conservative.
Aspin, weary from two intense weeks of campaigning, said he was grateful but chastened. After the closed-door, secret-ballot election, Aspin told reporters: "The process has united the caucus. . . . There are a lot of things I have to do differently."
Without getting specific, Aspin continued: "I need to be more open. I need to be more up front. When I'm listening to someone, I need to say more than just uh huh, uh huh, uh huh."
Rep. Marvin Leath of Texas, Aspin's chief rival and a conservative who helped orchestrate his earlier ouster, pledged that he and his supporters would now put the insurgency behind them and "get in the harness" to support Aspin. "I feel like someone rode me hard and put me up wet," he drawled after the last exhausting day and night of campaigning for the job.
The final vote was 133 for Aspin and 116 for Leath. Earlier rounds of caucus balloting eliminated two other challengers, liberal Rep. Nicholas Mavroules of Massachusetts and the committee's second-ranking Democrat, Rep. Charles E. Bennett of Florida. This contrasted with the vote on Jan. 7 when Democrats voted 130 to oust Aspin and 124 to retain him.
Liberals said they put Aspin through the rare ordeal of having to defend his chairmanship to emphasize their desire for a more active anti-Administration policy.
"There is a very strong consensus in the Democratic caucus that (Defense Secretary) Caspar W. Weinberger has got to be reined in," said one liberal spokesman, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. "You've never heard such a harmonious chorus on arms reduction, procurement reform and no defense spending increase."
A Leading Moderate
Aspin, a former Pentagon analyst, has been a leading House moderate on military policy. No one during the chairmanship fight questioned his acumen on armed forces and defense issues. But he angered liberal Democrats--who are a majority in the House party caucus--by supporting some of Reagan's most controversial defense initiatives, such as the MX ballistic missile and aid to the Nicaraguan rebels .
After Thursday's vote, liberals and conservatives agreed that Aspin is not likely to feel so free to chart his own course in the future.
"He'll be a little more careful in his dealings with people. If he decides again to do something like going against the Democratic caucus and vote for aid to the contras , he'll . . . explain his posture just like anyone else," said liberal Rep. Howard L. Berman of Panorama City, who supported Aspin.
Conservative Wilson was more emphatic about the likely shift in the chairman's attitude. "I don't think Les will vote for the contras again."
Many liberals had arms control on their minds when they entered the House chamber for the afternoon of electioneering speeches and voting. Rep. Norman D. Dicks of Washington, a leading advocate of arms limits, predicted that Aspin would be influential in obtaining legislation that would force the President to abide by the terms of the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Soviets, which has never been ratified by the Senate.
Dicks also said the vote for Aspin signaled the end for the President's hopes of reviving his MX program.
Staff writers Sara Fritz and Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.