House Democrats rejected a proposal yesterday to change the rules to let two senior Budget Committee members run for chairman after Black Caucus members suggested that the change was designed to prevent the election of a black chairman.
The 124-to-115 vote against amending the three-term limit on Budget Committee membership came during a closed meeting of the Democratic Caucus that participants said had an uncomfortable racial overtone.
The change, which would have made an exception for the committee's next chairman, would have affected Reps. James R. Jones (D-Okla.), the current chairman, and Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.). Both are white and have served three terms.
None of the other Budget Committee Democrats who have reached the service limit had expressed an interest in becoming chairman.
The failure of the bids by Jones and Panetta to be allowed to run for chairman immediately set off a scramble for the chairmanship in what is expected to be a tough budget year.
Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), who is black, is one of the leading candidates. In addition, Reps. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), Brian J. Donnelly (D-Mass.), Martin Frost (D-Tex.), George Miller (D-Calif.) and Mike Lowry (D-Wash.) have expressed interest in the job.
However, Democrats said some canidates may soon drop out to take positions on other committees. There is talk of an effort to unseat Rep. Melvin Price (D-Ill.), 80, as Armed Services Committee chairman, a position that would likely interest Aspin.
The caucus by voice vote also killed two rules changes that would have altered the system for selecting committee chairmen.
In other action, the caucus took up but did not vote on two other controversial rules changes.
One, denounced by Democratic liberals as a restriction on free speech, would limit the time at the end of the work day for televised speeches.
The other would dramatically revamp the method by which the House would consider spending and tax bills.
Both proposals are expected to be voted on by the 253-member caucus today.
Panetta said yesterday that the proposal to allow him and Jones to run against each other for chairman was defeated because of wariness about changing rules and a feeling among several groups, including the Black Caucus, that the change would work against them.
According to several lawmakers, white supporters of a rules change argued repeatedly that the Democratic Party is trying to craft a new "image" and that it is important to have an experienced person in the crucial Budget Committee post.
The comments about "image" apparently angered several black lawmakers and others, who took it to be a veiled reference to the fact that Gray is black. Rep. Charles W. Rangel (D-N.Y.) indicated that there were racial overtones to the proposal, sources said. And then Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.) demanded to know what the "image" comment meant.
Sources quoted an agitated Mitchell as saying, "Bill Gray was out there getting votes for a year, and now there's this rules change. I clearly have to believe it's because Bill Gray was out there."
Miller, who has a liberal civil rights record, had proposed the change. He grew equally angry, Democratic sources said, and quickly responded: "The suggestion that we introduced this because we're racist is a little rough."
Gray said afterward people may have been reading more racial significance into the debate than was there.
He added, "The issue of the budget chairman is not an issue of race. My candidacy is based on competence, providing leadership, building consensus . . . . The only color I'm interested in is red and black -- ink -- of the federal government."
The proposal was defeated partially because of the opposition of the Texas and Pennsylvania delegations, which are backing native sons Frost and Gray, respectively, for chairman.
In addition, lawmakers said, some liberals opposed the proposal because they were concerned that it might lead to the reelection of Jones, whom they view as too conservative. Some conservatives opposed the rules change because they feared that Panetta, whom they view as too liberal, would win.
The debate over limiting after-hours television time was equally emotional, Democrats said.
Currently there is no limit on these "special orders," and a group of conservative Republicans activists have spent hours each day after House business is over denouncing the Democrats in front of millions of cable-television viewers.
A special Democratic Caucus rules committee recommended changing House rules to limit special orders to two hours a day, divided evenly between the Democrats and Republicans.
The committee said the change was designed to save money, but House Republicans charged that it was a "gag" rule.
Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), a civil libertarian, said the TV rule change would look as if the Democrats were trying to quell free speech and were afraid of issues being raised by the Republicans.