After spending six hours avoiding the crisis confronting it, the House Assassinations Committee hurriedly adjourned yesterday to prevent chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) from forcing a choice between him and the panel's chief counsel, Richard A. Sprague.
The result appeared to be to edge the committee itself, and its investigation into the murders of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., a step closer to self-destruction.
Rep. Richardson Preyer (D-N.C.), who engineered the adjournment over Gonzalez's angry protests, said he hoped a settlement could still be worked out in concert with House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr.
"I don't think we want to have a Wednesday Afternoon Massacre," Preyer said. He said he feared another public display of acrimony on the heels of Gonzalez attempts to fire Sprague would "just further heighten the image of disarray the committee may have in the public's mind."
Testily, Gonzalez accused Preyer of "an intense desire" to take over the chairmanship and chided the rest of the committee for refusing to face up to the financial mess it is in, allegedly because of Sprague.
By a vote of 8 to 1, the committee decided to adjourn until Monday anyway, leaving Gonzalez behind to deliver his attack on Sprague to the members of the press.
The chairman did so with gusto, repeatedly assailing Sprague as "a rattlesnake" who had to be "stomped" and accusing the chief counsel of "scandalous" fiscal mismanagement.
According to a letter from House Administration Committee chairman Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.), the assassinations panel, which is currently living on probationary status with limited funding had only $777.49 in January for expenses other than salaries and will have only $882.10 left over this month after the 73-member staff is paid.
Sprague who put 23 or 24 people in the payroll Jan. 1 - two days before the committee's original mandate and money ran out, refused last week to cooperate with Gonzalez' demands that some staffers be fired. After several staff meetings at which Sprague allegedly told them that he, not members of Congress, was running the show, Gonzalez ordered his dismissal.
". . . There may be those who wondered at my haste," Gonzalez declared yesterday, "but when one spies a rattlesnake on the doorstep, there is no time to hesitate."
Gonzalez said Sprague hired some staffers with starting salaries of $8,000 to $16,000 more than they had been getting at their previous jobs. Then Gonzalez said, Sprague also told the entire committee staff at one meeting last week:
"I am laying out the lines of command in this office . . . I do not want you running back and forth (to) congressional offices as to what is happening here. If I find that kind of thing going on, they will be fired."
Ordered to stay on the job by all 11 other committee members, Sprague sat silently throughout yesterday's day-long hearing and left before Gonzalez denounced him. A spokesman said that the former Philadelphia prosecutor would have no comment.
The inconclusive climax came after the committee debated, amended and re-amended proposed rules - including a ban on wiretapping and electronic surveillance - for six tedious hours then balked at adopting them until they were typed up.
After postponing that issue, Gonzalez started to touch on his debate with Sprague only to be cut off by Preyer's motion to adjourn. A former federal judge, Preyer disclaimed any desire to be chairman following Gonzalez' Salvo and added that he would not consider taking the chairmanship even if it were offered to him.
For this part, Gonzalez told reporters he had no intention of stepping down even if the rest of the committee should call on him to resign.
"If they ask me to drop dead," he said "I'm not going to comply with that wish." He said Speaker O'Neill appointed him and only O'Neill could remove him.
Preyer and four other members of the committee, Reps. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), Floyd J. Fithian (D-Ind.) and Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-C.), caucused secretly later in the day, apparently to discuss a joint appeal to the speaker for a resolution of the conflict.
One still highly tentative option, apparently developed by Preyer and Rep. Richard Bolling (D-Mo.), who is close to the house leadership, involves getting rid of both Sprague and Gonzalez and abandoning the investigation of Present Kennedy's assassination. This would leave a reconstituted committee with only the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. to investigate.
Whatever the solution, one committee member said yesterday that Gonzalez hurt himself with his criticism of Preyer, one of the most respected members of the House.
"You see what he's really doing - he's killing the committee," this member said. "It's damn fair question as to whether the committee can survive at all now. Its strength was in the idea that it could conduct a credible investigation. It had to be like Caesar's wife. Now that's gone . . . I think the question now is what O'Neill wants. There are no other keys to this thing. It's got to be O'Neill."