Washington — Nearing its seventh month, the US embargo of grain above the 8 million-ton level to the Soviet Union is under broad attack in Congress and in the politically important farm states of the Midwest.
A bipartisan group of 20 senators from John Tower (R) of Texas to George McGovern (D) of South Dakota is supporting a legislative initiative by Robert Dole (R) of Kansas that would force an end to the economic sanction imposed by the President Jan. 4 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the House. Soviet troop movements out of Afghanistan and the approaching presidential campaigns could hasten the end of the embargo, some observers say they believe.
"I think it's far to say we've really turned the heat on. Everybody's demanding an end to it," says Parley Jensen, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Park Ridge, Ill. "He [President Carter] knows the pressure is going to be tremendous. And I think he's going to make some effort to win the farm vote."
To date, US secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland told the House Agriculture Committee June 25 that there has been no change in policy that would bring about an end to, or modification of, the embargo. But a farm interest group and an agricultural affairs specialist on Capitol Hill say there are indications that, under pressure, the President might declare US interests have been satisfied even before a full Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
"Conditions may be evolving to the point that Total Soviet evacuation is not necessarily the condition for removing the embargo," one congressional observer remarked.
"I think there's certainly a real big temptation now" to seize on developments in Afghanistan in ordre to end the embargo, says Farm Bureau official Mel Woell. But he adds it also is likely that the embargo could "dribble off, a little like Iran," in the months ahead.
At any rate, it appears that the full force of the embargo has gradually been weakened over the past six months. Other countries, chief among them Argentina, have supplied the Soviets with some of the grain denied by the US, Australia, Canada, and Western Europe -- the rpime exporters committed to the embargo.
One sign of a change in the wind was a June 18 decision by the USDA telling American grain merchandisers it no longer is necessary to restrain their international affiliates from carrying "uncommitted," third-country grain to the Soviet Union. Most uncommitted grain now has dried up, the USDA says, and international traders soon will be completing to carry the portion of the new grain crop that is not embargoed.
Allan Holbert, a spokesman for Cargill Inc., of Minneapolis, one of the nation's largest grain traders, says the USDA decision probably came about because of the realization that the Russians were not being denied access to non-US markets and because only three or four of the dozen international grain carriers were barred from the trade.
Farm Bureau president Robert Delano declared two days after the USDA action that it represents a "crack in the embargo dam." The decision "legitimized what we suspected for some time," he said, and "indicates the embargo is not working and should be dropped."
But Undersecretary of Agriculture Dale E. Hathaway says the action was a technical matter and had no effect on official export policies of the US or its allies. He admitted that companies outside the US were able to ship the Soviets non-US grain but said the Soviets still have fallen 11 million tons short of their desired import level between October 1979 and September 1980.
Mr. Bergland said the embargo has reduced Soviet grain, milk, and meat supplies and caused a sharp rise in poultry prices. It also has forced the Russians to draw on domestic grain reserves and has disrupted planning and distribution.
"The Russians have felt the sting," he told skeptical congressmen. "They're scrounging all over the Soviet Union for enough meat to send to Moscow for the Olympic Games. I recommend we keep the heat on."