Political pressure on Interior Secretary James G. Watt to resign immediately appeared to ease yesterday as President Reagan said he would not ask Watt to leave office and the president's close friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), urged Senate colleagues to give Watt more time to decide his fate.
Reagan, questioned in a New York Post interview about whether he plans to ask Watt to leave because he characterized several appointees to an advisory panel as "a black, . . . a woman, two Jews and a cripple," responded:
"No. I accepted his apology."
But a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken last weekend showed that Americans, by almost 4 to 1 among those with an opinion, say they believe that Reagan should fire Watt.
Forty-four percent of the 1,290 persons interviewed nationwide from last Friday through Monday said Watt should be dismissed. Twelve percent said Watt should be kept on the job, and 43 percent said they had no opinion.
Congressional sources said Laxalt, general chairman of the Republican Party, passed word yesterday that Watt is resisting pressure to resign immediately and that, if he does leave the administration, "he wants to do it on his own time."
In the Senate, sources said there is willingness to accede to Laxalt's request that Watt be given time to decide his future, but Senate Republicans stood fast in denouncing Watt's conduct.
At least 11 Republican senators have called for Watt's resignation and four others, including Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and Finance Committee Chairman Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), have denounced him and questioned whether he can remain effective. Late yesterday, 14 House Republicans signed a letter asking Watt to resign, and the letter is to be circulated further today.
One reason for the apparent easing of pressure on Watt was a decision by Senate leaders to delay action on a Democratic-sponsored resolution calling on Reagan to ask for Watt's resignation. A vote on the resolution, originally scheduled today, was postponed several days because of debate on the War Powers Resolution.
In the Post interview, Reagan described Watt as having done "a very capable job" as interior secretary. He said Watt's remark was "unfortunate" and "a mistake," but said, "I think in all fairness we have to recognize that, yes, it was a very improper thing to say but it certainly was not said in the sense of any bitterness or bigotry or prejudice."
Reagan added, "If I thought he was bigoted or prejudiced, he wouldn't be part of our administration. It was an attempt at lightness that, as we all have to admit, fell very flat. And it was unfortunate. So, I think that we have to recognize that and hope that it won't be repeated."
Asked whether Watt should remain in office, Reagan said, "Well, I think that is a decision that he, himself, would have to make, whether he feels that he has made it questionable as to whether he can be effective or not."
The furor stirred by Watt's comments underscored Reagan's longstanding reluctance to deal sternly with loyalists who have embarrassed him and his administration. White House counselor Edwin Meese III said yesterday that "this is a closed issue."
Some of Reagan's top assistants, active in attempting to protect the president's political interests in past controversies, have not moved to hasten Watt's departure but have left the matter to Congress.
In particular, officials said White House chief of staff James A. Baker III sought to take a hands-off approach to the incident. One offical said that Reagan made it clear that "he doesn't want the guy Watt slung out on the street" and that Baker wants to avoid any move that would run counter Reagan's sentiment.
This official said Baker also wants to avoid tangling with conservative activists who have been backed Watt strongly in the past. The official also noted Baker's wife is a close friend of Watt's wife.
"Nobody here is leading the charge to push Watt out. But nobody here is leading the charge to save him," one White House official said. "We are literally sitting in neutral."
The findings in the Post-ABC News poll reveal sharply increased public focus on Watt and concern over Reagan's support of him, evidenced by comparing responses with a poll question in the current survey and in separate surveys in March and April. Watt's controversial ban on rock music and particularly the Beach Boys at Fourth of July festivities on the Mall became public the first week of April.
This week's survey asked, "Would you say you approve or disapprove of Reagan's appointment and support of James Watt as secretary of the interior, or don't you have an opinion on that?"
In the new poll, 43 percent said they disapprove, 10 percent said they approve and 48 percent said they had no opinion. Those figures show that disapproval of Watt increased sharply and that "no opinion" was substantially smaller.
In March, 9 percent said they approved, 28 percent disapproved and 63 percent had no opinion. In April, 10 percent said they approved, 32 percent disapproved and 57 percent offered no opinion.
Watt's allies on Capitol Hill sought yesterday to shift attention from Watt's troubles and onto Interior Department issues. Rep. Manuel Lujan Jr. (N.M.), ranking Republican on the House Interior Committee who has become Watt's chief House defender, said it is "time to get on with business as usual."
Watt has "no plans to resign," according to his spokesman, Douglas Baldwin, who added that, to his knowledge, Watt held no discussions yesterday about his possible resignation. He said Watt was "deluged" with telephone calls urging him not to resign.