A small political miracle occurred this week on Capitol Hill. After four years of trying, the Senate finally passed a foreign-aid bill. The bill, approved Wednesday by a lopsided 75-to-19 vote, will provide $12.8 billion in US economic and military assistance to 123 countries around the world.
Although it is $400 million less than President Reagan's 1986 foreign-aid request, the administration says it will throw its support behind the bill. If the House goes along, in a vote after the Memorial Day recess, Congress will have its first foreign-aid authorizing legislation since 1981.
For the most part, the new Senate bill freezes aid levels approved in last year's ``continuing resolution'' -- an all-purpose appropriation passed at the end of the congressional session. Nevertheless, there were a few big winners in this year's bill.
Reflecting strong Senate support for Israel and for commitments made in the 1979 Camp David accords, Israel and Egypt together received $5 billion in economic and military aid, almost 40 percent of this year's total foreign-aid package.
In addition, the bill provides new funding for two anticommunist resistance movements. In voting Tuesday, the Senate approved an amendment for $15 million in humanitarian aid to guerrilla forces fighting Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The money would be channeled through private voluntary organizations, and would supplement $4 million in aid that has already been provided by the US State Department.
The Senate also agreed to provide $5 million to assist rebel forces in Kampuchea (Cambodia), which have been fighting the occupying armies of Vietnam since late 1978.
One key to the Senate's success this year was the decision of Republican leaders to sidestep controversy by prohibiting amendments for new military or humanitarian aid to Nicaraguan rebel groups. The Senate bill prohibits any aid to these contra forces. The issue of contraaid is expected to be included in the floor debate on a defense-authorization bill this week or next.
Passage of Wednesday's Senate bill is also somewhat of a personal triumph for Sen. Richard C. Lugar (R) of Indiana, new chairman of the the Foreign Relations Committee. Congressional sources say Senator Lugar effectively used his Republican majority and his skill as compromiser to guide the bill through committee and through the complicated amendment process on the Senate floor. Of 46 amendments proposed in the Senate, 34 were adopted. Sources say Lugar was helped by the cooperation of many Senate Democrats who were also eager to see passage of a foreign-aid bill this year.
The issue now goes to the House, where prospects seem dimmer.
Last month, the administration voiced its strong disapproval of a foreign-aid measure approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The administration is opposed to cuts in the bill's recommended levels of military assistance and to provisions that limit the President's foreign-policy making authority.
The administration's principal target is an amendment that prohibits arms sales to Jordan unless Amman agrees to recognize and negotiate with Israel.
The administration is also opposed to an amendment that would tie aid for the Philippines to political and human-rights reforms. An alternate version of the amendment was enacted Wednesday in the Senate.
The Reagan administration is also on record as opposing an alternative foreign-aid bill sponsored by House Republicans.
The question now is whether the House can fashion a foreign-aid bill that offers room for compromise with the Senate, congressional sources say. If no basis for compromise is found, authority for setting foreign-aid funding levels will revert to the House and Senate appropriations committees -- as it as since 1981.
For the most part, passing foreign-aid legislation has been routine business on Capitol Hill. Experts say failure to pass an aid bill since 1981 partly reflects increased competition for scarce budgetary resources.
``How can Congress freeze cost-of-living increases on social security, then turn around and vote money for some foreign country?'' asks one House aide.
Experts say it also underscores the growing disposition of Congress to second-guess the President on foreign-policy matters. ``It's part of a whole trend towards increased assertiveness on the part of Congress in foreign policymaking,'' says another congressional source familiar with the foreign-aid process. ``Congressional access to the foreign-policy process is limited. As a result, Congress tends to use the foreign-aid bill more and more as a means of `micro-managing' foreign policy. It's a formula for stalemate.'' Graph: How Senate would allocate $12.8 billion in foreign aid. Development aid: US effort slides (as a percent of GNP) 1962 '65 '68 '71 '74 '77 '80 '82 '83 '84 1.0 0.7 0.6 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.2 0.1 UN target for official development assistance Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and World Bank