James Watt's unexpected vacation spells 'resignation' to some

Interior Secretary James G. Watt is currently on vacation in California. That may be a prelude to his resignation. Despite a chorus of public outcry over Mr. Watt's latest abrasive offhand remark, President Reagan early made clear he would not fire him. Watt aroused a political furor when he referred to members of an advisory panel as ''a black . . . a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.'' Calls for his resignation came from many quarters. But Mr. Reagan, like many presidents, has shown himself extremely reluctant to dismiss an aide who he believes is doing a good job.

Pressures in Congress, however, may take care of matters for him. Republican opposition over Watt's gaffe is growing there, and indications mount that the secretary will resign before the end of the year rather than face a congressional no-confidence resolution.

Watt would thus leave more quietly and gracefully than a forced resignation would allow.

''A majority of the House Republicans believe he ought to leave,'' said Rep. Richard B. Cheney (R) of Wyoming in a breakfast meeting with reporters Thursday.

The controversy generated by a succession of verbal blunders, Mr. Cheney said , now detracts from the secretary's ability to pursue his policies. Even strong supporters of Watt's policies - including Cheney - recognize that he represents a political liability for the Republican Party if he remains in office.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia has called for a sense-of-the-Senate resolution urging Watt's resignation. But the GOP leadership in the Senate is reluctant to bring the issue to a vote. Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee is not keen to put it to a vote, which would cause a political fight. He has effectively held off a vote until after the Senate recess next week. The easiest way out, say congressional sources, is for Watt to seize the proverbial bull by the horns and quit.

That is a possible scenario, according to a story in the Washington Post. The Post quotes administration officials as saying that Watt realizes he cannot remain in office for a few more months, as White House officials had thought possible.

White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes has confirmed that Watt held a meeting with White House counselor Edwin Meese III before leaving unexpectedly for a vacation in Santa Barbara, Calif. But he said Watt had not offered - nor been asked - to resign.

Just how much political damage Watt has caused the President seems to be a matter of opinion. The general view is that the secretary has now offended virtually every group in the United States with his distasteful wisecracks. Some political observers note, however, that presidential loyalty is seen as an admirable trait in US politics and that Reagan can easily weather this storm.

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