WASHINGTON (Jan. 5)
The selection by the Senate Democrats yesterday of West Virginia’s Robert C. Byrd to be Majority Leader assures that the direction of the majority party in the 95th Congress will continue to be strongly sympathetic to U.S. support for Israel and Soviet Jewry.
The Republicans, on the other hand, in the surprise election of Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee as Minority Leader, named a legis- lator considered to have a mixed record on support of Israel.
The possibility of weakening Congressional support for Israel never arose in the Democratic contest in the Senate since Byrd’s principal rival, Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, has a record as a friend of Israel that is written in superlatives. Humphrey withdrew his candidacy yesterday when he saw that he had no chance of winning.
In the House, the selection last month of Rep, Thomas P. O’Neill of Massachusetts as Speaker and Rep. James C. Wright of Texas as House Majority Leader, indicated continuity of support in the lower chamber, too.
Although not an initiator of legislation or resolutions for Israel or Soviet Jewry, largely because he is not a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Byrd has been among their co-sponsors and voted regularly for them. His predecessor as Majority Leader, Montana’s Mike Mansfield, who has retired, was never known to endorse such proposals and usually voted against them. Byrd, who generally opposes foreign aid, has supported aid to Israel when it has come up as a separate measure.
BAKER’S RECORD UNEVEN
Baker, who is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has said that the U.S. should have a general posture of aid and support for Israel while attempting to display an evenhanded approach to other countries that want to be friends of the United States. He has voted for some foreign aid bills and been absent during the voting of other key measures.
The Tennessee Republican was one of the first Congressmen to meet Palestine Liberation Organization chieftain Yasir Arafat. After meeting Arafat in 1975, Baker said in a television interview that the PLO head seemed to say without saying it directly that the PLO has moved from commando warfare to statehood. Baker said he couldn’t get Arafat to say that he would recognize Israel’s right to exist, but the Senator said the “Arabs don’t want to drive Israel into the sea.”
Baker, along with Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D. Conn.) was co-chairman of a 13-member Senate delegation that visited the Middle East last summer to study potential U.S. sale of nuclear reactors to Israel, Egypt and Iran. After returning to Washington, he expressed some disappointment but no surprise at having been barred from visiting Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona.
Regarding Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Baker said the Egyptian “really is driving for some sort of accommodation.” He said Israel seemed “far more cautious, which I translated to mean probably less flexible.” Baker’s predecessor as the Republican leader, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, was considered an ardent supporter of Israel.