WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger is planning to resign from the Cabinet in the next few days for reasons related to his wife's deteriorating health, government sources said Monday night.
National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci is the leading candidate to replace Weinberger, sources said, and Army Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, deputy national security adviser, is expected to replace Carlucci.
Weinberger, who has served as defense secretary since the beginning of the Reagan Administration in 1981, is expected to announce his plans to step down by the end of the week, the sources said. His resignation will not be effective until a replacement is confirmed, they added.
Refuse to Comment
The defense secretary was in Monterey, Calif., Monday to open three days of meetings with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 15-nation Nuclear Planning Group and of bilateral talks with several defense ministers. White House spokesmen in Washington and Pentagon officials traveling with Weinberger refused to comment when asked whether the secretary was planning to resign.
But one senior Administration official said that the 70-year-old Weinberger's decision to leave was based on the health of his wife, who sources say is suffering from cancer and acute arthritis. Jane Weinberger, 68, has been ill for some time and worsening steadily.
"He doesn't talk about any elements of his personal life, but it is widely known she is not well," this official said of Mrs. Weinberger, although her condition reportedly is "not terminal."
Former Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), a long-time adviser to the Reagan White House, said the decision to resign was strictly related to Mrs. Weinberger's health. He denied that the secretary was stepping down because of any differences on policy issues, such as the proposed U.S.-Soviet agreement to ban all intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
The departure of Weinberger could be a severe blow to the White House as it tries to rebuild its image after the shocks it suffered during the Iran-Contra crisis that broke a year ago.
And even with the appointment of a strong figure like Carlucci, the transition could cause problems in the sensitive White House national security apparatus as it struggles to deal with volatile issues ranging from arms control to military escalation in the Persian Gulf.
Personal Blow to Reagan
The resignation also would be a personal blow to President Reagan, who has relied on Weinberger's advice for at least two decades, dating back to his days as governor of California. The departure would leave only one member--Samuel R. Pierce Jr., secretary of housing and urban development--of the original Cabinet installed nearly seven years ago.
Weinberger, who was known to have wanted to remain as defense secretary for the full two terms of the Reagan presidency, is only four months away from surpassing the number of years that Robert S. McNamara served as defense secretary under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
He had stayed in the job despite major conflicts not only with Congress but within the Administration. However, sources said, his concern for his ailing wife has convinced him that he should leave.
Jane Weinberger, an author and publisher of children's books, has said that she prefers the life she has established at the couple's home on Mt. Desert Island on the coast of Maine to that of official Washington. She often has appeared uncomfortable at official functions that she has attended with her husband.
Weinberger and his wife attended a reception at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Monday evening where they greeted various international dignitaries. While at the head of a reception line, Weinberger's wife sat in a chair, rising only to shake hands and say a few words to various officials. When she rose, she supported herself with a wooden cane.
One former Administration colleague who remains close to Weinberger said that the secretary has "been very frustrated. He has said to me and to others that it seemed awfully lonely over there. . . ." He said that "frustration and fatigue, along with Jane Weinberger's health" contributed to the decision. "These are killing jobs, and he has worked at it very hard for seven years."
Differ in Assessments
Congressional experts on the military differed in their assessments of the impact of Weinberger's resignation. "In the last year of an Administration, the bureaucracy digs its heels in and you can't do much," an aide to a senior Democrat said, contending that a change at the top "doesn't make much difference."
However, a Republican aide--noting that the Administration faces negotiations with the Soviet Union on arms reductions and with Congress on the Pentagon budget, said the loss of Weinberger would be a blow to Reagan's efforts to defend his defense programs.