The White House became embroiled in another controversy involving women's issues yesterday when Sarah Weddington, President Carter's adviser on those issues, abruptly canceled a scheduled appearance before a Senate committee.
Weddington was to testify before the Senate Human Resources Committee during the first of two days of hearings on "women in the coming decade." But according to an aide to the committee chairman, Sen. Harrison A. Williams (D-N.J.), Weddington told the committee earlier this week that she had been advised not to make the appearance.
Yesterday, Weddington sent Williams a letter telling him that she had been advised by White House counsel Robert Lipshutz that "it is White House policy for personal aides to the president to decline invitations to testify before congressional committees."
The same policy has been followed by other presidents "as far back as anyone can remember," according to Margaret A. McKenna, Lipshutz's deputy.
A spokesman for Williams said the senator "expressed surprise and dismay" at the cancellation, which came after Weddington had submitted copies of her prepared testimony to the committee staff. That testimony was read into the committee records by Nancy Gordon, executive director of an administration task force on women that is headed by Weddington.
Bella Abzug, who recently was fired as the head of the National Advisory Committee on Women, is to testify before the Senate committee today. But at the White House's request, the committee also greed to hear testimony from Abzug's successor, Marjorie Chambers.
White House relations with women's groups frequently have been uneasy and marked by controversy as was typified by the Abzug firing. Weddington, a Texas lawyer who earlier worked in the Agriculture Department, joined the White House staff last year in a move designed to improve those relations.
Weddington agreed to testify before the committee on Jan. 8. She said yesterday in her letter to Williams that she had been unaware of the White House policy at that time.
"Only rarely has President Carter or any other president been faced with a request for the appearance of a personal staff member," she said in the letter. "In my tenure here, I had not previously had any occasion to discuss this issue and therefore was unaware of the policy."
Weddington said the policy is based on the fact that she and others at the White House are advisers to the president and that "advice to the president must be candid and frank to be effective and, therefore, is best kept confidential."
McKenna said the policy "is so well-known on (Capitol) Hill that no one even asks us to testify."
In addition to the longstanding policy, congressional sources suggested that White House officials may not have wanted Weddington placed in a situation where she could be questioned about the firing of Abzug, which she supported.