Divided House Democrats yesterday elected conservative James R. Jones (D-Okla.) chairman of the Budget Committee for the next Congress, but only after he had twice tied in the balloting with liberal Rep. Daivd R. Obey (D-Wis.).
The conventional wisdom had been that, given the conservative twist of the November elections, Jones, a pragmatic conservative who has shown an ability to work with all actions, would probably win easily over Obey, who would be more likely to fight hard for liberal programs.
But on the first ballot at yesterday's closed session of the organizing caucus of all House Democrats, Obey and Jones had 100 votes apiece, trailed by Rep. Paul M. Simon (D-Ill.) with 39. After Simon dropped out, Obey and Jones tied again at 118 apiece. Jones won a second runoff, 121 to 116.
The election indicated that House Democrats are almost evenly split on whether to trim back big spending programs in light of the conservative tide that appears to be running across the country. It also suggests that when the 192 Republicans are added to the formula, the House will be a pretty conservative place on money matters the next two years.
Jones told reporters after the vote he had run on a platform that Democrats must offer a program that meets the mandate of the election all House Democrats will bet together on a "reasonable budget policy."