New aggressive mood catches House Democrats. House turns to tough talk . Conservatives bury opposition on foreign policy issues
Washington — Critics say it's the ``Rambo'' mood. The machine gun-toting movie hero who swoops from a helicopter into Vietnam's jungle has captured Capitol Hill, they charge. Others say Congress has finally awakened from its liberal slumber to begin countering threats against the United States.
For better or worse, the lawmakers are sending out a harshly worded get-tough message. Nowhere is this more evident than in the House of Representatives, a body that is nominally controlled by liberal Democrats.
In vote after vote on national security matters, the conservatives have buried the opposition. With rapid-fire action, the House has granted aid to anticommunist rebels in far-flung parts of the world, from Nicaragua to Cambodia and Angola.
Often the votes have been clear reversals of earlier votes. The House, after repeated refusal, agreed last month to build new nerve gas weaponry. The switch on Angola rebels backtracks on a nine-year-old ban on aid.
Hardliners are delighted. ``It's certainly clear that the left, which has dominated the majority party in the House, is losing its grip,'' says Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R) of Illinois. ``Congress is beginning to reflect the mood of the country. More and more people are getting sick of being pushed around.''
The strong feelings on Capitol Hill can be traced to the terrorist truck bombing of the American marine barracks in Beruit in October 1983. Since then, a series of events have built into a growing wave of frustration that shows no sign of cresting.
Earlier this year, the House denied aid to anticommunist rebels in Nicaragua, and the Marxist leader of that nation promptly jetted to Moscow to embrace Soviet leaders. President Daniel Ortega Saavedra's trip was ``one of those little historical events that is a watershed,'' according to Representative Hyde. Democrats ``couldn't wait to reestablish their anticommunist credentials'' by reversing their decision on rebel aid, he says.
Since then, terrorists struck in the hijack of TWA Flight 847. Attackers gunned down American marines and civilians at a caf'e in El Salvador. And at home, government authorities revealed a major spy ring in the US Navy.
``A sense of national pride has been affronted,'' says Hyde, who applauded the trend of ``being less citizens of the world and more Americans.''
``Our futile efforts to be loved globally perhaps are being supplanted by the realization that being respected'' is more important, he says.
Some in Congress are uncomfortable with the get-tough stance, however.
``I don't think that's ever a healthy sign when you strap on your six-guns,'' observes Sen. David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota. Such reaction is only temporary and means that terrorists and hijackers control legislation, he says. ``You've got some creep sitting in an airport setting your agenda.''
``This is a jittery, jumpy place,'' says Rep. Pat Williams (D) of Montana, who has watched the trend in the House with concern. ``That's not the best condition for prudent, reasoned judgments. We're making some mistakes in this atmosphere.''
Citing the recent House vote to permit the death penalty for spies convicted in peacetime, he recalled a line from a country-and-western song, ``If you hang 'em all, you'll get the guilty.''
``We're in a mood to hang 'em all right now,'' says Representative Williams.
He argued that the House is exaggerating the mood of the public, which he said is far less bellicose. Polls have consistently shown Americans to be wary of US involvement in Central America.
But the pressure to be tough is intense, according to congressional critics. ``There's just a panic, almost, about being a `wimp,' '' says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado. ``Never have I seen such flaming rhetoric,'' she says.
Part of the reason for Democrats' concern is that opponents might use their voting records against them later. ``Democrats are particularly vulnerable to it because the Republicans and `the right' have the money and the technology to get thousands of letters into each of our districts,'' Representative Williams says.
On the issue of the death penalty for spies, for example, Democrats tried hard to duck a recorded vote and pass it on a voice vote. GOP backers were not satisfied. They insisted on a recorded vote on this amendment to the defense-authorization bill, which they won by a 3-to-1 margin.
Opponents of hard-line amendments hope that some will be removed when the foreign-aid bill goes to a conference committee with the Senate. ``This hot broth that we're serving here hopefully will be cooled by the Senate,'' Williams said.
However, the Senate has been even more conservative than the House. And its members are beginning to sharpen their words, as well.