Washington — Over the past seven years, Congress has engaged in a tug of war with the Reagan White House over the direction of US foreign policy. In Grenada and Lebanon, at the negotiating tables of Geneva, throughout Central America, Reagan administration policies have sparked blistering confrontations between the executive and legislative branches. Now, several congressional leaders have said ``enough.'' Instead of battling the administration's foreign policy initiatives before TV cameras, they are endeavoring to alter the ground rules that led to the conflicts in the first place.
``It's a matter of more clearly defining Congress's role and the executive branch's role in foreign policymaking,'' says Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas.
In the wake of the Iran-contra affair, Congress has taken steps to clarify the administration's responsibilities to keep it appraised of covert activity - passing a bill, for example, to require an administration to notify Congress within 48 hours of a covert undertaking. Before then, the law only required ``timely'' notification.
More recently, some key lawmakers have taken steps to explain the respective responsibilities of Congress and the White House when it comes to ratify treaties and deploy US troops overseas.
That effort lies behind this week's parliamentary cliffhanger, as the Senate struggles to approve the landmark Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Yesterday, the Senate moved to close off debate by blocking efforts of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, who has wielded the Senate's rules to slow treaty deliberations. Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia predicted that the Senate would vote to overwhelmingly approve the treaty by Friday or Saturday.
Yet Senate approval has not been jeopardized by Senator Helms' tactics so much as by a long-running dispute between Senate Democrats and the Reagan administration over the extent of the Senate's treaty-approving powers.
Democrats want to attach a provision to the INF pact that would bar future administrations from reinterpreting the treaty without the Senate's permission. Republicans object to that effort, mostly because they are concerned that acceptance of the Democrats' position will tip the balance in a partisan standoff over the meaning of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
The resolution of that standoff, in turn, may determine whether the administration will be allowed to proceed with certain tests of anti-ballistic missile defenses developed as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Republicans complain that the Democrats' proposed condition to the INF accord would undermine the legitimacy of the administration's new interpretation of the ABM Treaty, crafted to allow certain SDI tests. Yet it seems likely that the Democratic position will prevail; the administration is eager to ratify the treaty in time for the summit, and Republicans concede that the treaty will win well over the required two-thirds vote even with some variant of the Democratic provision.
If that outcome constitutes a setback for the Reagan administration, Republicans can take some satisfaction in the surprising effort of four key senators to rewrite the 1973 War Powers Act. The act has been the bane of successive Presidents and Republicans; it requires the withdrawal of US troops from areas where ``hostilities'' are deemed ``imminent'' within 90 days unless Congress says otherwise.
``The thing never worked properly, it's caused a lot of problems,'' says Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, a co-author of the War Powers overhaul. Though the act has never caused a troop recall, it has triggered some bitter finger-pointing bewteen Capitol Hill and the White House.
The new version of the War Powers Act effectively turns the old version on its head; it allows, for example, troops to remain in an area where there are hostilities unless Congress specifically votes otherwise. It also establishes a consultative panel of congressional leaders to be kept appraised of US military activities.
``We're trying to rewrite the rules ... to get Congress and the White House off each other's throats,'' says one Senate Democratic leadership aide. ``All that fighting and scraping - it's no way for the world's most powerful democracy to conduct foreign policy.''