Why Congress treads softly on Central America policy

Many Democrats are grumbling in the privacy of the cloakroom and some in public, but Congress shows no signs of blocking the Reagan administration's Central American policies.

The President set off a quick succession of shockwaves last week when he announced removal of two key officials from Central American roles and proposed sending 100 American advisers to Honduras to train soldiers from El Salvador. But so far, the reaction from lawmakers has been to wait and see.

''The next moves (by the administration) will tell us a lot,'' says Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D) of Maryland, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees Latin America affairs and a frequent critic of policies there.

''Popular wisdom is that we're going to see a more ideological, simplistic line,'' he says of the removal of the US ambassador to El Salvador, Deane R. Hinton, and Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Enders. But he adds, ''I hope that's not the case.''

President Reagan Thursday named replacements for the two officials. They are, respectively, Thomas Pickering, a career diplomat, and Langhorne Motley, the US ambassador to Brazil.

Despite threats of legislative action and proposed aid cuts to thwart Reagan's military aid policies in Central America, so far little has materialized, even in the Democratic-controlled House. ''You have a certain legislative lethargy,'' according to Mr. Barnes, who adds, ''I think there's still time.''

One of the biggest challenges to Reagan policy, a bill to cut off covert aid to anticommunist guerrillas in Nicaragua, continues to hit snags in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Action scheduled for Thursday has been delayed until next week at the soonest. Democrats have been negotiating with the State Department to try to find some middle ground.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., long an advocate of bipartisan foreign policy, is delivering low-keyed criticism of the Reagan policies in Central America.

The Massachusetts Democrat told reporters Thursday, ''I think he's going the wrong route,'' and he called for a policy that would put more emphasis on negotiations.

''We should be prepared to go with a massive economic plan to that area,'' he said.

Despite such opposition, the House leadership is apparently making no effort to push ahead anti-Reagan foreign-policy measures. No floor debate is yet scheduled on the issue, and the leadership is choosing to fill up this month by passing a series of domestic spending bills.

At the heart of the hesitation over Central America is a difficult political question, especially for Democrats. ''On foreign policy there is a desire on the part of the opposition party to give the President the benefit of the doubt,'' says Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California.

Mr. Coelho, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, attacked Reagan policies. ''The war in El Salvador is now Reagan's war, totally ,'' he said of the decisions to remove Hinton and Enders.

''He has personalized that war. He is basically running it directly from the White House through (National Security Adviser) Bill Clark.''

Coelho charged that US aid to rebels in Marxist Nicaragua is illegal. ''The law was broken, period,'' said the California congressman.

However, he defended his own party's failure to act quickly to stop the secret aid program. ''Maybe we clinched'' on foreign policy, he said. ''That may not be a bad policy politically.''

He added, ''If you want to be responsible, it means that you're cautious.''

Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blames the inaction on a ''wide-ranging disagreement'' about Central America within the Democratic majority. Many want to act, he says, but he calls the problem the ''profoundest dilemma for Democrats.''

If Democrats interfere with Reagan policies, then they would be accountable if Central America falls to the communists, says Leach. But if they keep hands off the Reagan policy, Democrats will not be blamed. ''Politically, they're in an absolute box,'' says the Iowan.

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