In the double glow of television lights and victory last Wednesday, just after the House had given overwhelming approval to president Carter's landmark civil service overhaul legislation, Rep. Morris K. Udall spoke briefly on the phone with the president at Camp David.
As the lanky Arizonan listened, his face crinkled in a tired smile. The president had said "something about who might have been elected president in 1976," Udall said later.
It was Carter's acknowledgement of the irony that the man who had made this widely heralded triumph possible was his former adversary in the '76 campaign, who had only reluctantly bowed to the president's personal request last spring that he take charge of this bill, a top domestic priority for Carter.
If Udall had declined that dubious honor, parties on all sides agree, the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 would now be in the dusty grave so many had predicted for it all along. Instead it is in the hands of House-Senate conferees, meeting today and next week to resolve the conflicts between the two versions, before what is expected to be smooth final passage.
"The single most important factor in that bill's success has been Mo Udall's unbelievable integrity, and the fact that he kept on pushing," said one lobbying, summing up the sentiments expressed by many
Udall had himself taken up interest in the issue of government reform. Also, more importanly, the Arizonan was viewed as the only member of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, which had jurisdiction over the bill, who could serve as a trusted mediator among the disparate elements that had threatened to sink the bill.
Udall is credited, among other things, with putting together, through arduous negotiation, the crucial compromise on a labor-management section of the bill - the issue that more than any other had threatened to kill the bill.
The "unsuing hero" in this saga, Udall said, is Rep. William Ford (D-Mich.) who played a "quiet but critically important role" in that particularly struggle.
It was Ford, a staunch supporter of labor, who fought from the beginning against a labor package, favored by the administration, that would satisfy the Republicans but would divide Democrats and would have the administration "running over" the federal employe unions, Udall said.
It was Ford's eventual approval of a compromise on the scope of bargaining to be given federal employe unions, plus his efforts to persuade other labor supporters to join him, that led to what Udall termed "that remarkable spectacle" last week of conservative Republicans, led by Rep. John Erlenborn (R-Ill.), the liberal Democrats, led by Ford and Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.), joining in a 380-to-0 House approval of the labor package.
"The bill would have sunk if Ford and Clay and organized labor had decided to go after it," Udall said. "As it is, they (labor) are coming out with substantial gains."
Ford called his feat "nothing fancy. It's the [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] is supposed to work around here."
He criticized the administration for some early misjudgements, such as not consulting properly with unions and their allies, baiting federal workers by emphasizing the need to "get rid of incompetents," and the like. He said he foresaw a resulting backlash "which would make it difficult for members to support the bill, especially Democrats."
"We urged that the new powers the bill would give to managers the balanced off with fair play for employees," he said. "But it took some time to convince the administration that we were serious, and not just trying to spoil the president's bill."
Some other sources on the committee still grumble about "bumbling" and a lack of political savvy in White House dealings with them. Last spring, for instance, just as Carter was gearing up to woo the committee on this bill, a top administration official went campaigning for the opponent of the committee chairman, Robert N.C. Nix, who was subsequently defeated.
[LINE ILLEGIBLE]administration efforts, this weekwent so far as to say "there was a certain naivete in the beginning" on the part of the Carter team.
However, he said that Civil Service Commission Chairman Alan K. Campbell "is extremely bright and learned quickly." Campbell has led a White House task force in pushing the president's plan on all fronts, including a massive nationwide public relations effort.
"I was naive," Campbell said yesterday, but "I got over it."
In the area of labor-management issues, he said the administration's early recommendations were the result of an intense dispute within the administration on how much to give the unions. This left the Carter forces "little room for bargaining and manuevering."
As the bill progressed through one crisis after another, Udall said, the president kept in close touch with him. "But he also told me you're the quarterback' and gave me rather complete authority" to make decisions, including some not so pleasing to the administration.
For example, with time running short on the congressional calendar, Udall make a "battlefield decision" not to fight an amendment offered in committee by Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman (D-Md.) that had been vigorously opposed by the administration. The amendment limited Carter's new Senior Executive Service, a key part of his plan, to an initial experimental phase before it can expand throughout the government. That change is one of the major differences to be reconciled in conference.
It was partly because of what Udall called the "vicious crosscurrents in the committee" that he resisted the president's urging last spring that he become the bill's shepherd. Not only was he busy with major projects of his own, but he had "considerable doubts at the time that we could pull it off at all," Udall said this week.
But the president had appealed "to my patriotism and my friendship," Udall said. "I'm an old Hubert Humphrey Democrat - a sucker for that kind of appeal."