Sanctions may have gotten Reagan off hook. Democrats in Congress want stronger S. Africa action but other issues, voter apathy relieve pressure

President Reagan's executive order on South Africa may forestall an immediate rebuke of his policy in Congress. It has not stopped the simmering debate in Washington over that country's policy of racial segregation. Democrats, charging that the executive order is both toothless and too late, are continuing to push for a congressional bill with tougher sanctions.

The lingering debate has taken partisan overtones, charges Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, who told his colleagues that ``the focus has shifted now from South Africa to playing politics.''

In fact, Democrats in the Senate have stood unanimously on the issue, which has already caused some embarrassment to the Republican administration.

During the past months, however, the sentiment for rebuking South Africa has been growing into a strong bipartisan mood. Even some conservative Republicans have been putting pressure on the President.

``I believe that in the absence of outside pressure, [the South Africa government] will cease to reform,'' says Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, who heads a group of ``young turk'' Republicans in the House. On most issues, his group takes the conservative side. On the issue of South Africa sanctions, he calls on Congress to proceed with its bill.

Representative Weber said in an interview that he is looking to the future. He calls himself one of the ``newer generation of conservatives who see an opportunity for the Republicans'' to become the majority party. The White House policy on South Africa as a ``major obstacle'' for blacks who might join the GOP.

Mr. Weber and many other lawmakers returning from visits with their constituents found little public interest in South Africa.

``There's a lot of support for this in the black community all over the country,'' says Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, who has supported the Senate bill on sanctions but now backs the President.

Overall, the issue has ranked far behind jobs, foreign trade, and the federal deficit. ``My district has a massive farm problem,'' says Weber, who heard little from his constituents about South Africa. ``The potential impact is long term with the black community and young and moderate whites concerned about civil rights.''

Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, who is pushing for additional sanctions, says, ``In spite of the fact that this issue received a great deal of press attention, the issue of sanctions rarely surfaces back in my home state.''

Mr. Heinz, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says he expects little political impact.

GOP consultant George Ramonas says, ``I think most people in the US don't want to see this country involved with the affairs of South Africa.''

He added, however, that a lenient White House stand coupled with other Reagan moves on civil rights could do damage, says Ramonas, adding that the GOP is trying to win at least 10 percent of the black vote nationwide.

Senator Dole, among other Republicans, has carefully separated himself from the White House on civil rights. Mr. Dole pressured the White House on South Africa. He has joined other lawmakers in filing a legal brief that challenges the Reagan administration's view on a minority voting rights case.

The Republican majority leader, who has never kept secret his presidential ambitions, now is backing the President's executive order on South Africa. The order also patches up the frayed White House-Senate relations.

But meanwhile, Dole will have to fend off the efforts of another possible presidential aspirant, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.

``It is not enough for the United States to speak to the evil of apartheid through executive order,'' Mr. Kennedy told the Senate. ``On an issue as important as this, America should act by statute.''

Kennedy and other critics say Reagan should have immediately banned import of the South African Krugerrand coin and threatened stronger action unless Pretoria demonstrates ``substantial progress'' over the next 12 months.

They also call for more stringent measures requiring US companies to follow policies of racial equality.

Despite criticism from many Democrats, the proposals are staunchly defended by many Republicans as going as much as 95 percent of the way toward the congressional position.

``I think at this point it's important to get the issue behind us,'' said Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum (R) of Kansas. She said that if the Senate were to proceed with legislation over presidential objections, ``it weakens our voice to the South Africa government.''

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