Congress is coming out of the world of rhetoric in the Afghan crisis into sober second thought of national sacrifices. Hardliners like Sens. Henry M. Jackson (D) of Washington and Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York hail what they see as President Carter's change of position but warn of the costs involved and the danger of overreaction.
Other congressmen ask President Carter to be specific. They applauded his ultimatum against "an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region," which, he says, "will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests" of Amerca to be repelled "by military force" if necessary. But how big is the "region?" Who are our allies? How reliable are their leaders? What sacrifices do we make at home?
Statements and conversation by congressmen indicate no diminution in support for Mr. Carter's objectives but, rather, a secon-day appraisal of the costs involved. Lumping them together, they could amount to a new era:
* All over America young men (and women) are asking if they will be registered or called up in a draft.
* Energy discipline seems likely to be tightened: If foreign oil supply is crucial enough to be fought for, domestic use can hardly avoid drastic regulation, whether by price restraint or ration cards.
* Sacrifices seem necessary, too, on the economic front; defense spending gets precedence over social programs; hopes glimmer for a balanced budget -- let alone tax cuts.
The mood in Washington has altered extraordinarily in a few months; it is reflected in the unprecedented reversal of support for President Carter on the opinion polls. Today's congressional mood reflects the nation's; it is not hysterical, but it is somber and resolved. A frequently asked question is whether Mr. Carter's program is commensurate with the assumed dangers; he proposes a 5 percent overall increase in defense spending, but, if this "is the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War" (statement Jan. 20), should the domestic front not be tightened -- for example on energy? Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's Jan. 28 political speech challenging Mr. Carter may sharpen debate.
Republican presidential candidate Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee takes the line that President Carter's "conversion" to a hard line is admirable but "three years late." This is the line Republican critics seem likely to take. An "almost unbroken series of mistakes," is how Senator Baker put it on the CBS-TV program, "Face the Nation."
Thus, the 1980 political debate seems beginning as to who can carry on a tough line better.
Because of Vietnam, this new American diplomatic challenge seems unlikely to resemble Vietnam. Congress cheered President Carter when he gave his "military force" threat to Russia Jan. 23, but members frequently stated that a less favorable place for confrontation (the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier) could hardly be found -- distant countries in a turbulent area, with uncertain leadership and feuding tribal and religious factions.
The congressional mood seems to be clarifying. There is bipartisan agreement to protect sea lanes and access to Gulf oil. How to support the same goal and carry on a presidential campaign too seems to be turning into a contest among candidates as to who can carry on program most effectively.