Congress wary of US in Mideast - but not enough to reconvene
Washington — Although the President always holds the high cards in making United States foreign policy, that fact is now even more glaring in this Congress-less capital. As American military involvement in Lebanese fighting deepens, the legislature, scattered by a recess, is left with a hand of deuces and treys.
At least two lawmakers have called for bringing Congress back into session to review the US bombing retaliation last weekend against Syrian positions. But so far the idea of reconvening has generated little interest.
So the Reagan administration will probably be able to conduct foreign policy with little scrutiny from the legislative branch at least until Jan. 23, when the new session opens. However, individual members of Congress are reporting a growing wariness about Lebanon that could affect US policy over the long haul.
''I'm deeply concerned about the rising level of violence in the Middle East, '' Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R) of Maryland said this week as he stepped out of a closed-door Senate Foreign Relations Committee briefing.
A staunch Reagan ally, Rep. Dick Cheney (R), just back from visiting with his constituents in Wyoming, said that Lebanon was ''clearly prominent in the public mind.'' There is ''some confusion'' and ''uncertainty'' about the US role in Lebanon, he said.
And another Republican, Sen. Larry Pressler of South Dakota, said that many of his constituents have concluded that the US is ''in the middle of a religious squabble'' in its Lebanon peacekeeping role. ''It doesn't have the support that the Grenada operation does,'' he said.
Such statements are not new. The loss of eight more American marines and two planes in the region has revived complaints the Reagan administration has no clearly defined mission in Lebanon and could be headed toward disaster.
Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, who opposed sending in the troops from the outset, said that the Lebanon policy could be deserted by both Republicans and Democrats. ''I think in the months ahead you may well see the President be isolated,'' the Texas senator, who heads his party's Senate campaign committee, told reporters at a breakfast.
That is clearly not the case yet. Leaders of both houses have backed the President. Except for a few critics who want troops out now, Congress has offered no alternative to the Reagan policy, as even Senator Bentsen conceded.
In fact, the biggest fights in Congress over Lebanon have not been over substance but over when the lawmakers will review the policy. Under a resolution passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan in October, President Reagan now has an 18-month period for keeping the troops in Lebanon before he seeks new authorization from Congress.
The strongest action now being contemplated is to shorten that review period.
''The Democrats haven't come up with something else,'' to replace the Reagan policy, said a Senate Democratic official. ''You have to look to the executive branch for leadership. Congress applies the checks. . . . It's not a body equipped to develop alternatives.''
Even the War Powers law, passed in 1973 to strengthen the congressional hand, merely attempts to give Congress the power to ratify or reject presidential plans to deploy troops. It also provides for the president to consult with Congress before sending troops. That law, never fully accepted by a president, has been sorely tested in the Lebanon crisis and by the Grenada invasion, in which Congress was relegated to the spectator's gallery.
But the Grenada action ended quickly and successfully.
The sticking point in the struggle over war powers is Lebanon. It will be more than a year before Congress is scheduled to examine the Lebanon question again.
''The danger in this kind of situation'' is there isn't a national forum for debating the events in the Middle East, said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D) of California, who is among those calling for a special session of Congress. ''The only place you can get that kind of debate and airing of the issues is . . . when the Congress is in session,'' he said in a telephone interview.
Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D) of Florida, the top ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, called a briefing of any congressional members in town for Friday. But he told the Monitor that congressional authority was limited. ''Most of the time Congress winds up trying to put pressures on the administration in a public and political sense,'' he said.
This power is strongest when Congress is in session and receiving lots of press, he said. ''When Congress is out, there isn't much to report about except what the President is doing.''