Washington — Conservatives are angry and discouraged. Their heroes continue to fall. First there was the resignation under fire of Anne M. Burford. Then there was the exit of James G. Watt. Now the last of the original team of first-term conservatives, Donald J. Devine, has been attacked and removed from President Reagan's team.
The loss of Dr. Devine, under pressure from Senate liberals, sends a shockwave through conservative Republican activists, and it could have a significant impact on next year's Senate elections.
Devine, a stubborn, get-the-job-done activist who upset career federal workers, was considered Mr. Reagan's most conservative appointee. As director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), he cut payrolls, slashed benefits, and tried to install new rules that rewarded good performance.
One fellow worker recalls that in his early days in Washington, Devine, clipboard in hand, would walk the halls of government buildings and challenge workers he saw lingering there. ``Where are you supposed to be?'' he would ask.
Devine's get-tough attitude quickly sent a message throughout the bureaucracy.
Paul M. Weyrich, president of Coalitions for America, says: ``No other appointee has so aptly implemented the Reagan agenda.''
David Y. Denholm, president of Public Service Research Council, complains that the biggest lobbyists against Devine were ``organized special interests within the government work force.''
Devine himself claims to have saved $6.4 billion in personnel costs over the past four years and to have cut the staff of the OPM by 22 percent -- figures that his Senate foes didn't dispute.
His hard-nosed approach, however, began to build a deep reservoir of resentment against him on Capitol Hill among Senate liberals, such as Thomas F. Eagleton (D) of Missouri and Charles McC. Mathias (R) of Maryland. Even moderates began to have their doubts.
Meanwhile, Devine over the past four years failed to foster the friendships he would eventually need on Capitol Hill for reconfirmation to his job this year by the Senate. Further, he made some controversial moves within his department that even Republican allies considered inept.
By Thursday morning, it appeared that Devine would lose the reconfirmation vote on the Senate Government Affairs Committee by 11 to 2, possibly 12 to 1.
Devine's ouster has focused immediate attention on the 1986 elections, where Republicans will be battling to hold on to their narrow margin in the Senate. Conservatives have noted with growing anger that Senator Mathias offered no support to Devine, and almost certainly would have opposed Devine in a showdown vote.
The Senator's attitude toward Devine could trigger strong primary opposition to his reelection next year -- either from former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, a darling of conservatives, or even from Devine himself, who lives in Maryland. Such a liberal-conservative fray could weaken the party, and even hand the Maryland seat to the Democrats.
After withdrawing his name from nomination, Devine suppressed his disappointment. He described himself as a lightning rod for the White House, a man who got theheat for trying to make some of the most important changes on the Reagan agenda.
The coup de grace in the Devine affair, however, was supplied by Devine himself, and certain members of his inner circle. Much of the story unfolded this week.
The story began in March, when Devine's four-year term was expiring, and Senate confirmation was not immediately forthcoming. Devine and his aides arranged to turn the OPM over to the deputy director, Loretta Cornelius, a moderate Virginia Republican who hadn't supported all of Devine's initiatives.
Openly, Devine asked Dr. Cornelius to appoint him to an interim position as either ``executive director'' or ``executive assistant'' to OPM with broad powers. She agreed but selected the less sweeping title of executive assistant. Privately, Devine and his counsel, Joseph A. Morris, drew up another document that delegated all of Dr. Cornelius's new authority over to him in his new position of executive assistant.
Under the law, said Senator Eagleton, this document had to be revealed to Cornelius, but it was not.
Devine and his aides explained to the senators that failure to show it to Cornelius was merely an oversight. Eagleton and others, however, saw it, in Eagleton's words, as ``an act of illegality and stealth unbefitting a high public official.''
The facts? Insiders give this account. Devine and Cornelius never had seen eye to eye on a number of issues. He was losing power but thought it would be only temporary. She was to be only an interim head, until the Senate acted.
Meanwhile, Devine didn't fully trust Cornelius. He hoped the ``secret'' document would serve as his insurance policy in case she got out of line prior to his reconfirmation. -- 30 --