A few minutes after publicly praising President Carter for his support on women's issues, Bella S. Abzug was fired by Carter yesterday as the co-chairwoman of the National Advisory Committee for Women.
The committee's other co-chairwoman, Carmen Delgado Votaw, resigned last night "in solidarity" with Abzug after learning of the firing.
Abzug, the flamboyant former New York congresswoman, was called to the office of White House political adviser Hamilton Jordan and informed by Jordan and White House counsel Robert Lipshutz of the president's decision.
"To enhance the relationship between the administration and the committee and to increase the spirit of consultation, cooperation and partnership, the president believes that new leadership for the committee will be beneficial," Jordan told Abzug in a letter later released by the White House.
Abzug could not be reached for comment last night, but the committee issued a statement calling Carter's action "a terrible mistake" and predicting widespread resignations by other committee members.
"It is especially unfortunate that members of the committee, which is an independent citizens' advisory group, were not informed by the president of his decision to force the resignation of Mrs. Abzug, who was carrying out the instructions of her committee members," the statement said. "We feel this unwarranted dismissal will create a gulf between the president and women's constituencies..."
The committee quoted Abzug and Votaw as saying, "We are shocked by this totally unjustified action."
Abzug's sudden downfall occurred yesterday in a series of events that she was clearly unaware would end with her dismissal.
They began when Abzug led some 40 other members of the advisory committee into the White House for a meeting with Carter that lasted twice its 30-minute scheduled time. The president, according to White House officials, told the committee that he was not satisfied with the administration's relationship with the group and that they had to find better ways to work together.
"It saps our joint strength for us to be confrontational," one White House official said Carter told the group. But the president also apparently did not suggest to the committee that he was about to fire one of its leaders.
After the meeting, Abzug and Votaw emerged from the White House to speak with reporters. One White House official said that after the meeting with Carter it appeared that other committee members instructed Abzug to make a "positive" public statement, which she promptly did.
"We had a very good meeting," she told reporters. "We told the president that we supported his commitment to the goals of equality -- he's been very strong on that."
Abzug said the committee left the White House "very satisfied" and that Carter "was very anxious that we president our beefs and gripes." Asked if she expected to be meeting with the president in the future, she said she would meet monthly with White House aides "and from time to time with the president."
From there, Abzug went to her meeting with Jordan.
Although appointed to the post by Carter, Abzug has always had a stormy relationship with the White House. Last November, the advisory committee canceled a meeting with the president because he allocated only 15 minutes for the session.
What finally triggered yesterday's action was a press release prepared by the advisory committee on Thursday for use after the meeting with Carter. The press release criticized the president's anti-inflation program, the administration's proposed cutbacks in welfare programs and increases in the military budget, and other aspects of administration policy.
"Hell, she works for us," one White House aide said. "We're paying her, she has a staff. We're not going to do it anymore. Why, they were duplicating that press release over at the Labor Department."
Abzug was not paid, but was reimbursed for travel and expenses and provided with a government-paid staff headquartered at the Labor Department. The advisory committee's budget is about $300,000 a year.
Officials said that the president decided to fire Abzug yesterday morning when he learned of the press release. Asked for Abzug's reaction during her hour-long meeting with Jordan and Lipshutz, a White House aide said, "She was not pleased to hear this."
Sarah R. Weddington, Carter's special assistant for women, would not comment on the developments, but it was learned that she supported Abzug's firing.
"The relationship between the White House and the committee has been neither positive nor productive and required, we thought, new leadership," another official said. "As a result, the president made his decision to relieve Mrs. Abzug. He wished not to have to take this action."
The advisory committee was appointed by Carter to continue the work of the government-sponsored National Women's Conference held in Houston in 1977. Votaw was head of the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women.
During the White House meeting, officials said, the president mentioned the press release that triggered his decision to fire Abzug, calling it "not helpful." Abzug, they said, sought to "lecture" Carter on the committee's role, while he suggested ways the group could work more closely with the White House.
When Carter left the meeting with the women, officials also said, members of the committee -- apparently including Abzug -- stood and applauded.