WASHINGTON -- Maverick Democratic Rep. Eugene Atkinson of Pennsylvania -- who backed Edward Kennedy for president and has supported President Reagan's economic policies -- planned to switch parties today with Reagan at his side.
Atkinson told The New York Times in an interview printed today that his move to the Republican Party reflects personal loyalty to Reagan and anger at Democratic efforts to chastise members who voted for the president's economic program.
'They referred to us as renegades and mavericks and granted us 'amnesty,' which really went bad with me,' he said. 'I don't need their amnesty.'
The congressman called his move 'a calculated risk' and said he received 'no promises' from Reagan in return.
House Speaker Thomas O'Neill, asked to comment on Atkinson's move, replied 'Gene who?' With a wry smile, he added, 'You can see he's made quite a mark around here.'
Then, in a more serious tone, O'Neill said, 'Atkinson is bartering his principles for the opportunity to run in a district that he can't win (as a Democrat).'
Rep. John LeBoutillier, R-N.Y., who said he had worked since April to get Atkinson to switch, said the announcement would be made this afternoon at the White House -- with Atkinson to be flanked by Reagan, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, a Pennsylvanian who helped negotiate with Atkinson, and himself.
Atkinson, 54, would become the first Democratic congressman to switch parties since the election. Rep. Bob Stump, D-Ariz., announced last month he will switch but the change has not yet taken effect.
'Gene must have his reasons,' said Gary Myers, who was replaced in Congress by Atkinson. He added that the 25th District, located just north of Pittsburgh, which Atkinson has represented since 1979, has a conservative to moderate philosophy, 'and perhaps that's what Gene is reacting to.'
President Carter campaigned for Atkinson in 1978, and his forces were surprised when Atkinson backed liberal rival Kennedy against Carter in 1980.
During his recuperation from gunshot wound he suffered in the March 30 attempt on his life, Reagan called Atkinson while the congressman was on a radio talk show and persuaded him to support his budget cuts. Atkinson subsequently has backed Reagan on several key votes.
Atkinson, shocked at the high cost of living in Washington, also made some newspaper headlines when he lived in his House office at one point, taking his meals in the building cafeteria and using the House gymnasium for showers.
Tonight, the Republicans will throw a reception for Atkinson at GOP headquarters on Capitol Hill to welcome him to the fold, LeBoutillier said.
LeBoutillier said Atkinson will join the House Republican Conference immediately and sit on the Republican side of the aisle on the House floor. 'As of tomorrow, he will be one of us,' he told United Press International Tuesday night.
But because of Pennsylvania election law Atkinson will have to wait until after local elections next month to switch party registration, LeBoutillier said.
Counting Atkinson as a Republican, the breakdown in the House will be 242 Democrats and 192 Republicans.
LeBoutillier said there are several more Democrats considering changing parties, but declined to identify them because they might get 'cold feet.' He said the goal is for the GOP to gain control of the House by 1982 and, 'If we can't beat them, convert them.'
LeBoutillier said he started his campaign to convert Atkinson after Reagan attempted to reach Atkinson at Beaver Falls, Pa., radio station WBVP in April and was himself put on the air.
'He had voted with Reagan on a few key votes and got a lot of heat for doing so,' LeBoutillier said. 'I said if you're voting with Reagan, why don't you switch and be a Republican?
'He said, 'I'll think about it.' I said if that's the case, I'll work on this guy. I worked on this guy every day we were in Washington since April.' He said the White House entered the negotiations in July.
LeBoutillier said the possibility that Atkinson would be redistricted out of his seat by the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature 'had nothing to do with it.'