President Carter yestersday abandoned his attempt to create a new Cabinet-level Department of Natural Resources in what administration officials conceded was the first major setback in Carter's effort to reorganize the federal bureaucracy.
The president's decision was announced last night by senior administration officials who asked not to be identified by name. They said they considered the attempt to be dead for the rest of Carter's term.
The effort, the officials said, fell victim to objections from key senators to a White House proposal to create the department through the use of Carter's government reorganization authority, which Congress granted the president early in his term. Both Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.), chairman of the Government Affairs Committee which would handle such a reorganization plan, and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) insisted that a Cabinet-level department should be created only be congressional legislation, the officials said.
Consultations on Capitol Hill, they added, convinced the administration that the submission of a legislative proposal to create the department would lead only to a protracted debate that would produce little of significance in the end.
"We now believe, that this proposal is too controversial for Congress to handle this year," one official said.
Plans for the Natural Resources Department, one of Carter's most ambitious reorganization projects, were announced March 1. Essentially, the proposal called for an expansion of the Interior Department by adding to it the U.S. Forest Service, largest agency in the Agriculture Department, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, largest single component of the Commerce Department.
Early in his term, the president won passage of legislation that created the Energy Department, and his proposed creation of a separate Education Department in the Cabinet has passed the Senate.
But in the case of the Natural Resources Department the White House proposed not legislation but use of Carters reorganization authority. Under that authority, reorganization plans that are submitted to Congress automatically become effective unless rejected by either the House or Senate in 60 days.
The reorganization plan for the Natural Resources Department never was submitted to Congress because of the objections raised by Byrd and Ribicoff.
The administration officials who announced Carter's decision also conceded that the ambitious natural resources reorganization was an indirect victim of other administration priorities, particularly the president's emphasis on gaining Senate approval this year of the new strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) with the Soviet Union.
Early in his term, Carter might have been tempted to wage a full-scale battle to win enactment of legislation creating the department. But with the SALT debate expected to dominate the Senate agenda for the rest of the year, the White House clearly calculated that it was not worth investing time and resources in a domestic reorganization quarrel.
The Natural Resources Department plan was controversial from the outset. Even before the proposal was formally announced, it drew stiff opposition from congressional committee chairmen with jurisdiction over the Agriculture and Commerce departments.
The Carter White House has never before abandoned a reorganization plan, and all of the plans submitted to Congress have been approved. Two such plans are currently pending there.
The demise of the Natural Resources Department proposal means that Carter-whose 1976 election campaign promised a sweeping reorganization of the government-will after four years in office have created one new government department (Energy) and possibly a second (Education). No Cabinet-level departments have been eliminated. The administration has also put into effect several other reorganization measures, none of which has attracted much public attention. CAPTION: Picture, SEN. ABRAHAM A. RIBICOFF . . . insisted on role for Congress