Before departing Monday for California and a visit with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, President Reagan met with congressional leaders at the White House to urge their support for a dramatic increase in military aid to El Salvador. At about the same hour, across town on Capitol Hill, legislative aides were preparing for congressional hearings later this week on the administration's steadily growing weapons sales program abroad.
Foreign aid is always a controversial subject in Washington, but unusually so now with the amounts of money - and in particular the emphasis on military sales , loans, and grants - being sought by the Reagan administration.
There have been significant shifts here over the Carter administration - changes that officials say are needed to counter Soviet influence and further US aims abroad.
''We live in a dangerous world; 'wars and rumours of wars' abound,'' the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. John Vessey, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week. ''It is not only a dangerous world; it is an interconnected world. Our own security is inescapably linked to the security of our allies, friends, and trading partners.''
For the coming fiscal year (1984), the administration wants to boost foreign aid 16 percent ($2.3 billion) over 1983 appropriations to a total of $17 billion. Under this program, military and military-related aid would jump nearly 20 percent. The largest piece here would be for Foreign Military Sales loan guarantees, with a limit of $4.4 billion, 22 percent over the 1983 limit.
The portion of foreign aid with the largest rate of increase would be for the Military Assistance Program, which provides grants to buy US-made weapons. This funding would jump more than 150 percent, from $290 million to $747 million.
Members of Congress have spoken out against a rate of increase in military aid several times greater than that for economic assistance. And within the program, aid to countries in several regions - the Middle East, Central America, and Turkey/Greece - is sure to spark heated debate.
As outlined by military and diplomatic officials, ''security assistance'' has several ''strategic objectives.'' Among these: to strengthen military alliances, secure access to American forces and bases overseas, and ensure availability of energy sources and important raw materials. Military sales, it is acknowledged, help reduce unit costs on certain key weapons, lowering US Defense Department outlays.
There is some debate over whether Economic Support Fund money should be included as security assistance. But nearly all of this goes to countries that receive large military grants and loans as well, thereby leaving them more of their own resources for defense spending.
Egypt and Israel receive about half of all US security aid. Turkey, Spain, Greece, Pakistan, and South Korea make up more than 30 percent. Highlights of the Reagan aid program:
Middle East. Israel would receive the same funding as for 1983, but military grants would be reduced and more would have to be borrowed. This in effect is a cut that has been criticized by Israeli officials and Israel's many friends in Congress. Less controversial will be a special 1983 supplemental request for $ 236 million to help rebuild Lebanon's armed forces and provide for its own defense.
NATO. The largest single increase in military aid is for Turkey, whose loans, grants, and defense-related economic support would jump from $645 million to $ 930 million, while those for Greece would remain the same at $280 million. This violates an informal agreement with the ''Greek lobby'' in Congress whereby the ratio of Greek to Turkish military aid is fixed at 7:10. Administration officials have hinted that Greece may receive more once new agreements on American military bases there are reached.
Latin America. ''We face a major challenge in the Caribbean Basin,'' William Schneider, undersecretary of state for security assistance, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. Administration officials said Monday they are reviewing the role of US military advisers in El Salvador and may increase the number beyond the 37 currently there.
Whereas the US devotes 3 percent of its security assistance to Latin America, the Soviet Union spends 8 percent. Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic receive large amounts, but not nearly as much as El Salvador. In addition to a 24 percent increase over 1983 appropriations, the administration is seeking another $60 million in emergency military aid to counter leftist guerrillas who are gaining strength there.
Congressional leaders told the President Monday he'll have trouble on Capitol Hill if he tries to bypass Congress in providing such aid. Many lawmakers are increasingly doubtful that the government in El Salvador can prevail militarily.
Major US security aid* recipients (Millions of dollars)
Country FY '83 FY '83 FY '84 appropriation supplemental proposed Israel $2,485 $0 $2,485 Egypt $2,075 $0 $2,050 Turkey $645 $120 $930 Pakistan $400 $75 $525 Spain $412 $0 $412 Greece $280 $0 $280 S. Korea $140 $70 $230 El Salvador $165 $0 $205 Sudan $95 $2.5 $180 Jordan $55 $39.5 $135 Honduras $34.5 $1 $80 Guatemala $10.3 $6 $50 Zaire $4 $22.5 $20 Lebanon $14.5 $253.5 $15 Cyprus $5 $10 $3
* Aid includes Foreign Military Sales guaranteed loans, Military Assistance Program grants, and Economic Support Fund loans and grants Source: Congressional Quarterly