House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. appears to have pulled the frying pan out of the fire for the White House in the lingering dispute with Congress over United States troops stationed in Lebanon.
The Massachusetts Democrat said Tuesday that he would go along with a proposal to authorize the 1,200 marines to participate in the peacekeeping force in Lebanon for at least 18 months. He made no prediction about whether the House would approve the plan, adding that ''there's grave concern out there about the date.''
As drawn up in closed-door negotiations over the past three days, the proposal closely resembles an offer that House Democrats made to the White House a week ago. At that time, the White House rejected the plan because it stated that the combat deaths of two marines in Lebanon Aug. 29 had triggered the War Powers Resolution, which limits presidential authority over deploying troops to hostile areas.
The White House until now has resisted mention of the war powers limitations. And a week ago the administration also balked at having any time limit, even one as long as 18 months.
However, the House offer began to look more favorable as Senate Democrats began pushing for more stringent language and Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland sought a time limit of six months. Moreover, an aide to Speaker O'Neill pointed out that it became increasingly difficult for the White House to argue that hostilities did not exist in Lebanon.
Under the 1973 War Powers Act, a president must notify Congress if he is sending troops into an area of hostility or imminent hostilities. Unless Congress acts to authorize the troop movement, the president must bring the soldiers home after 60 to 90 days.
The Reagan administration gave way on the War Powers Act, but only partly. The compromise now before Congress invokes the War Powers Act, but at the same time provides President Reagan with the authority to keep the troops in Lebanon, at their current level, for a year and a half.
The President has reserved the right to renounce the War Powers provisions, once the compromise arrives on his desk, but Speaker O'Neill told reporters Tuesday that the presidential signature is proof that he is ''acknowledging the War Powers Act.''
While the compromise also draws some limits on the role of the marines, based on the Lebanon Emergency Assistance Act passed earlier this year, Mr. Reagan would be free to take action to protect Americans in Lebanon.
The agreement over Lebanon, which still faces votes in both houses, will face intense criticism from members, especially from Senators who have objected to giving the President too long a period. Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia told reporters yesterday, ''I'm uneasy about an 18-month period until I can hear justification from the administration beyond that (published) in the press.''
Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D) of Missouri commented recently that 18 months would be longer than the entire US military involvement in World War I.
But despite the criticism, the agreement meets the basic requirements of Congress. It makes mention of the War Powers Act, thus preserving what many members see as a basic right of Congress to participate in deciding when the US will go to war. And it also allows Congress to go along with the President's current policy in Lebanon.
All but a handful of Congress members are supporting the marine assignment in Lebanon. Even US air raids against Lebanon rebel forces to protect the Lebanon Army have not appeared to dampen support. Asked whether those raids go beyond the peacekeeping role of the marines, Speaker O'Neill responded, ''That's a judgment for the military to make, not a political question.''
But one Reagan backer warned that the agreement between Congress and the White House is no guarantee of consistent support for the policy in Lebanon. Rep. Dick Cheney (R) of Wyoming, a member of the House leadership, said at a breakfast Tuesday that if the situation should worsen in Lebanon, the policy could still be in trouble.
''All things considered, it's probably better to have it than not to have it, '' said Representative Cheney of the agreement. ''But I wouldn't lean on it too heavily.''