Senate Finance Committee Chairman Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) escalated his attack on Interior Secretary James G. Watt yesterday, calling him a liability to the Republican Party's majority in the Senate and saying, "If I'd been president, he Watt would be gone."
The unusually strong statement from Dole, a likely contender for the presidency in 1984 if President Reagan does not seek reelection, came as the White House disclosed that there is no immediate plan to force Watt out, despite increasing calls from Republicans and Democrats for his ouster.
Asked yesterday at a White House ceremony, "What about Watt?" Reagan answered tersely: "I've accepted his apology."
Watt has said he will resign if Reagan asks him to do so, but an informed administration source said the president is leaving the matter up to Watt.
In an interview yesterday with the New York Post, Reagan described as "unfortunate" and "a mistake" Watt's reference last week to an advisory panel as "a black . . . a woman, two Jews and a cripple."
"I think in all fairness we have to recognize that, yes, it was a very improper thing to say," Reagan told the Post.
Dole made his comments about Watt at a packed news conference kicking off a public awareness campaign on behalf of disabled Americans. Dole, whose right arm was paralyzed in a World War II injury, and renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman, a polio victim, said they were "offended" and "appalled" by Watt's remark.
"There are other Republicans in this country who deserve to be protected," said Dole. "We Republicans want to retain the Senate majority in the 1984 elections and I think it's rather important we not keep erecting barriers . . . . We just can't stand, every two or three months, Mr. Watt making some comment to offend another 20 or 30 or 40 million people."
Dole said that "modern folks" stopped using the term "crippled" about 25 or 30 years ago, adding he finds it "kind of scary" that Watt invoked it. Watt has apologized to Reagan and to the five members of a commission appointed to investigate his coal-leasing program. His apology referred to the "morally offensive" statement.
"If someone is capable of doing that using the term cripple ," Perlman said, "he's probably capable of calling a black man a nigger and a Jew a kike . . . . I feel the verbiage of the man is like a window on his soul . . . . Off-the-cuff remarks are a real indication of what a person thinks, and that is what I question."
The blast from Dole came as officials throughout the imposing Interior headquarters said they were instructed by Watt's public affairs chief and longtime friend, Doug Baldwin, to refuse to answer reporters' questions, "no matter how tangential," on the subject of the secretary, and to refer such queries to him.
"We are not making any news today," Baldwin said. "The secretary came in and he is on his normal schedule." Watt conducted a regular Monday morning meeting with top aides and "moved paper" the rest of the day, Baldwin said. One aide who conferred with Watt said he is determined to stay on the job through 1984 because "he's a survivor." Another official said Watt spent part of the day planning an offshore oil sale, scheduled for November off the coast of California.
Five days have now passed since Watt made the remark about the five people investigating his coal leasing program, and in that time, 11 GOP senators have called for his resignation. Senate leaders including Dole, Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) have called Watt a serious liability, but have stopped short of calling for his resignation, saying the matter should be left Reagan.
Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has introduced a resolution calling on Reagan to ask for Watt's resignation, a measure expected to pass in light of the 11 GOP senators calling for Watt's ouster. However, Dole said he doubts the resolution will come to a vote. Consideration of the Byrd proposal, originally set for Wednesday, was postponed until next week because of the Senate's preoccupation with the war in Lebanon. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has vowed to block a vote on the "sense of the Senate" resolution, which would have no binding effect on Reagan.
Watt's remark apparently enhanced the news value of several otherwise obscure events in Washington yesterday. Television cameras and reporters packed into a meeting of the coal leasing commission that Watt made famous last week. The panel's last session drew only scant media attention. Environmentalists from the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation denounced the coal-leasing program as a "giveaway," and David Masselli of the Western Organization of Resource Councils called it "sleazy" as the cameras rolled.
At the news conference kicking off the public awareness campaign for the disabled, which is to include a benefit concert by Perlman at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, Dole observed: "This is a matter of great significance to 36 million Americans who are disabled , and if in fact it takes some strange remark like his to really get the American people to focus on the handicapped, maybe by some convoluted logic, he Watt may have done a service."
A benefit concert to be given by Itzhak Perlman will be held on Oct. 1, 1984. The date was incorrect in an article yesterday.