Washington — Following his pivotal role in shaping United States policy toward the Philippines, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana has emerged as a major player in US foreign policy. During the past year, Senator Lugar has frequently helped broker foreign policy deals between the White House and Congress. He has influenced key decisions on issues ranging from the Middle East to Central America.
But it was the Philippine election crisis that threw Lugar's new leadership role into sharpest relief. Charging election fraud by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, the soft-spoken Indianan helped bring 20 years of US support for the dictator to an end.
``He spoke his mind. He understood what was happening. He played a key behind-the-scenes role in taking Reagan's chestnuts out of the fire,'' says one admiring congressional source.
For Lugar, it wasn't the first time.
Last year, the senator was instrumental in convincing the White House to sidestep almost certain defeat by twice postponing a controversial request for $2 billion in military aid to Jordan.
In a performance he may be called on to duplicate next week, Lugar also helped work out a compromise that salvaged the Reagan administration's hopes of providing new aid for Nicaragua's anti-government rebels, known as ``contras.''
Meanwhile, Lugar took a major step toward reviving the fortunes of the once-prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee by shepherding passage of the first foreign-aid authorizing bill in five years. The bill, which is considered the committee's main business each year, has been victim of a collapsing consensus on the proper role US foreign aid should play in the advancing US foreign policy interests abroad.
``The foreign assistance bill was a way of establishing the fact that the committee was back,'' said Lugar in an interview.
In the process, the mild-mannered Lugar, who came to the chairmanship long on party loyalty and short on leadership experience, has managed to confound the expectations of many of his Capitol Hill colleagues. The key to success has been Lugar's passion for bipartisanship. Since taking the job he says was once considered a ``political graveyard,'' Lugar has launched a quest for ``first principles'' in US foreign policy, in the process showing considerable dexterity in drawing consensus -- or at least working majorities -- from a committee riven with deep ideological splits.
Bridging the political gap, say congressional observers, has been largely a matter of personality. ``Lugar came to this job as an ideological conservative. Yet in the last year he's shown the ability to listen to competing points of view, to put aside preconceptions to forge a compromise. That's engendered unexpected respect on both sides of the aisle,'' says an aide.
``He's sensible and fair,'' concurs ranking committee Democrat Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island.
Another key to success has been Lugar's close working relationship with top Reagan officials who have come to rely on his growing skills as a legislative strategist. During one impromptu meeting on Capitol Hill last year, Lugar was instrumental in convincing Secretary of State George P. Shultz that the White House would have to move fast to preempt the imposition by Congress of economic sanctions on South Africa. Days later, the President announced his own package of sanctions, avoiding a major political embarrassment.
``I think there's a trust that I'm a good friend, that we come from the same point of view,'' says Lugar. ``That gives some latitude for me to criticize.''
But the genial chairman is not without his critics. There's disappointment on the right that Lugar has not been an aggressive champion of conservative forign-policy causes. Many liberals say Lugar has gone so far to accommodate the administration that the committee's critical oversight function has atrophied.
As a result, says a congressional staff member, ``I don't think [the committee has] done a good job of looking into the issues in a particularly probing way.''
Still others point out that some of Lugar's success owes to the cooperation and support of committee Democrats. For example, it was compromise figures first recommended by Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd and subsequently embraced by Lugar that helped salvage passage last year of the foreign-aid bill.
Yet experts say it may prove impossible to fully restore the committee to the position it enjoyed during the early years of the cold war.
For one thing, more committees now have a piece of the foreign-policy action. With looser party loyalties and decentralized leadership, it's also harder to command the authority enjoyed by earlier committee chairmen like J. William Fulbright, whose influence prompted then-Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson to refer to him as ``my secretary of state.'' Experts also note that the towering figures of the past have now been replaced by younger, less experienced, more ideological members.
Still, even critics acknowledge that, for now, Lugar's style of leadership may be just what's needed to restore some of the committee's lost influence.
Lugar's next big test could come in this month's battle over the issue of aid to the antigovernment rebels fighting in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration has requested $100 million in new aid to the ``contras.'' But the administration's highly partisan political offensive on behalf of contra aid has created divisions even Lugar may find hard to contain.
``These are the alternatives, unhappily, that congressmen and senators will have,'' Lugar says. ``Either we organize the contra situation and are clear on their objectives, what we're doing there and fund them adequately. Or we come to a position in which we indicate that we're not planning to be effective. This is probably the year in which we'll have to come to that kind of decision.''