Interior Secretary James G. Watt, facing intensifying pressure to resign, telephoned a series of Senate Republican leaders yesterday to assess his future and was told that his congressional support has "severely eroded" and that he may not survive the current controversy.
Finance Committee Chairman Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) told Watt he should resign rather than force President Reagan or the Senate to move against him. Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) gave Watt a similarly bleak assessment, while stopping short of calling for his ouster, according to several sources.
White House aides said Reagan was undecided on Watt's future and probably would follow the will of the GOP-controlled chamber.
The president remained silent on the subject of Watt's remarks on Wednesday characterizing five advisers as "a black . . . , a woman, two Jews and a cripple." But White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Reagan continues to have confidence in Watt, "until I tell you differently."
In a televised interview, Reagan's daughter, Maureen, who is now advising the Republican National Committee on women's issues, called on Watt to leave the administration if he is "truly loyal to the president."
Watt telephoned Baker, Dole, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman James A. McClure (R-Idaho) and other Senate leaders to assess the political damage from his remarks and to ask whether he can remain effective.
"He has been told that his base of support has been eroded," a source familiar with Watt's conversations with the senators said. An aide to Baker said the majority leader did not ask Watt to resign but told him that "his effectiveness in Congress has been impaired and that he's not sure Watt will survive the controversy."
Interior Department aides portrayed Watt as having spent the day at his desk, hard at work on a series of environmental issues. Watt's spokesman, Douglas Baldwin, declined to specify what Watt did except to report: "Everything is fine here. It's always been fine. He's not going to resign."
Pressure for Watt's resignation mounted from several quarters as NAACP Chairman Margaret Bush Wilson, California Gov. George Deukmejian (R) and Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) joined six Republican senators and dozens of Democrats in calling for his ouster.
Watt's largest base of support, conservative grass-roots groups, mobilized telephone banks to try to save his job. But one of the most prominent conservative organizers, Paul Weyrich, said he and others fear the campaign may fall flat because many conservatives view Watt's remarks as a "serious error."
"In the case of the Beach Boys incident," when Watt banned the group from performing on the Mall on July 4, "I know of dozens of calls that went into the White House from high-ranking conservatives saying, 'Don't you dare touch him,' " Weyrich said. "But under the present circumstances, I just don't think those calls are going to be made."
Watt's supporters from conservative western states, including Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Sen. Chic Hecht (R-Nev.), telephoned him to offer moral support and encourage him to stay in the job.
"I think the man should be judged on his record, not on an occasional comment that none of us would condone," Hatch said. "The western senators love James Watt, and we think he's done a great job. It would be a catastrophe for this administration if they let him go. If he has to be removed, they better do it with class."
But other westerners, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who faces a 1984 reelection fight in a state where opposition to Watt is growing, were conspicuously absent from the ranks of Watt's supporters. Domenici said Watt has become a liability.
Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr. (R-N.M.), the senior Republican on the House Interior Committee, said through a spokesman that he had learned from Watt that the embattled secretary and his aides "are going to try to weather the storm over the weekend, assess the situation and meet again on Monday."
Watt's status was so uncertain at day's end that an effort by Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to have the Senate call for his resignation prompted Baker to scramble out of his office and gavel the chamber into adjournment.
Byrd proposed a resolution saying it is "the sense of the Senate that the president should without delay request the resignation of James Watt" for conduct "totally unbefitting a senior Cabinet member."
Baker, who was sitting in his office monitoring the action on a speaker, hurried to the floor and persuaded the Senate to adjourn rather than debate the matter.
The measure is set to be debated Wednesday. Administration officials said the White House plans to have decided Watt's future by then.