Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D.-W.Va.) said yesterday that a battle in the primaries between President Carter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) for next year's presidential nomination would not have a divisive effect on the Democratic Party.
"I don't see any consequences if it develops and goes down to the end." Byrd said at a meeting with a reporter. "When you talk about divisiveness, you should look at the Republicans," he added.
Over the last weeks, White House political strategists have been arguing vigorously in party circles that a run-off between Carter and his leading -- but undeclared -- challenger would split the party.
Asked whether he had plans to support either Kennedy or Carter during the primaries, Byrd said, "I have no intention of doing so." As for his own home state, Byrd told reporters, "If the election were held today in West Virginia, I think Sen. Kennedy would win.
"People in West Virginia believe President Carter is a good man, but they don't give him high marks for leadership," Byrd said.
The majority leader, however, stopped short of dismissing Carter's chances of capturing the nomination again, or winning a second term.
"I don't think he should be written off," Byrd said. "As an incumbent president, he has tremendous power available and is in a position to act to change his standing in the polls."
In an Associated Press/NBC poll conducted last week, President Carter had a 19 percent approval rating, the lowest any president has had in recent history.
Sitting in his ornate Capitol office, Byrd said the president cannot afford to run against the Congress or Washington during his reelection bid."The president ran against Congress the first time out, but he can't do that this time. He's an inside man," Byrd said.
Turning to the role the Chappaquiddick incident could have in a Kennedy candidacy, Byrd said, "I don't think there is any doubt that the question will be raised."
"Mr. Kennedy recognizes he has a problem and has addressed it -- people have a sense of fairness and judgment," Byrd added.
The majority leader also said that "for the most part, prospects have improved" for Senate Democratic candidates. He said he did not expect the Republicans to gain control of the Senate in the election next year.
While officially reserving his decision on the SALT II treaty pending in the Senate, the majority leader said he spoke with a dozen of his colleagues Friday to urge them to withhold final judgment on the treaty, and not to link its approval to increased defense spending or removal of a Soviet troop brigade from Cuba.
Byrd said that talks between Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and Soviet officials were "going forward," but declined to provide any details on whether the 3,000 Soviet troops would be removed from the island.
The majority leader did say that he expected the Senate to vote in favor of at least a three percent increase in arms spending in real terms, regardless of the outcome of the SALT II debate.
Asked how the Senate might vote on increasing its members salaries, Byrd said, "We're going to be faced with it in the next two weeks." Byrd said the pay raise could be 5.5 percent, or perhaps as much as 12.9 percent.
Rising from behind the felt-covered table Byrd sits at during his weekly press conference, the senator closed off the questions saying, "That's it for Hee-Haw."