IT was amusing, the other morning over breakfast, to hear majority leader Jim Wright wrestle verbally with the prospect of becoming speaker -- an office that could well be his when a new Congress convenes in January of 1987. Speaker Tip O'Neill has said he will not run again. What kind of changes do you plan in the speaker's role?
Let's talk about that in 1987.
Well, you are in the midst of a campaign now to win that office.
No, I'm not asking any of you fellows to vote for me. [Laughter from the group of reporters he was addressing.]
But can't you talk about technical changes you might make?
We'll talk about those things in 1987, if I'm fortunate enough to be speaker.
[Then, 15 minutes later, there were those questions and responses from Congressman Wright:]
What will now happen to social security and the big budget deficit?
When I am speaker, I will be the servant, not the master, of the House. And that is the case, currently, with Mr. O'Neill. It is the House -- not Mr. O'Neill -- which is single-handedly decreeing that social security promises are going to be kept. O'Neill feels they should. But it is the membership that decrees.
Perhaps it was the food. Chipped beef and gravy over toast may be a confidence builder. Or maybe it was the good fellowship that prevailed. But the amiable Mr. Wright did move, in no time at all, from being very careful about not claiming the speakership this far in advance to the place where, twice, he was saying, ``When I am speaker.''
Indeed, the Texan with the animated eyebrows that cartoonists delight in emphasizing seems the likely successor to O'Neill. There are others, such as Dan Rostenkowski and Tim Wirth, who still might beat him out. But in recent weeks, Jim Wright seems to have nailed down the support he needs.
What kind of speaker would Mr. Wright be?
He doubtless would be more confrontational with President Reagan than O'Neill has been. O'Neill takes issue with Mr. Reagan. But privately, there is a camaraderie between them -- two Irishmen who like each other's humor and know how to disagree without being disagreeable.
But Wright on more than one occasion has gone so far as to accuse the President of not only changing positions but of ``telling lies'' to the leadership in Congress. He concedes that the President is very popular and is a ``very nice man,'' but he portrays Reagan as a bumbler who has ``foisted'' an unworkable supply-side economic theory on the Congress and the country.
Wright's philosophy doesn't seem to differ noticeably from O'Neill's. O'Neill was once viewed by conservatives as one of the biggest of the big spenders. The Speaker has recanted, at least a bit, once frankly telling this same group of reporters that too much federal government money had been poured out in an effort to deal with problems of Americans -- and that it was time to pull back on this approach. In fact, he admitted personal guilt in this excess. But he remains, at base, a Northern liberal wh o votes liberal whenever he possibly can.
Wright comes out of Texas, where the conservative trend is much more in evidence than in Massachusetts. And Wright -- or at least his rhetoric -- reflects this point of view. Indeed, he talks much of saving government money and how he is interested in cutting or trimming programs. And he is less likely than O'Neill to be focusing on holding down the military budget.
But there is much of the old-time liberalism in Wright.
Thus Wright, like O'Neill, is caught between these conflicting approaches to governing. How will he resolve this problem? As he charts a legislative course -- if or when he becomes speaker -- Wright will soon tell us whether, in terms of the direction he would like to take the House, he is another O'Neill. Or something different.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.