Reagan is finding Congress balkier. O'Neill rebuff on `contra' aid one sign of waning influence; President fights back on TV

Ronald Reagan wanted to tell the House of Representatives, in person, how important aid to the Nicaraguan rebels was. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill wouldn't let him. So at noon yesterday, as the House prepared for a probable vote today on a military and logistical aid package to the ``contras'' fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista regime, the President went on television. Mr. O'Neill's striking rejection of Mr. Reagan's unusual request symbolizes the congressional opposition the President now encounters on almost every major domestic and foreign policy initiative.

Two of his recent judicial appointments have come under fire in the Senate as unqualified or too ideologically extreme to sit on the federal bench. A major test may come as early as today if he Senate takes up the highly controversial nomination of Daniel Manion for the Seventh US Court of Appeals in Chicago.

The President's Strategic Defense Initiative (star wars) has been criticized by senators generally loyal to the Republican administration. They propose curbing research and development funds for the program.

A bipartisan majority in the House passed a far-reaching housing bill over the threat of a presidential veto, which contains a number of programs the administration would like to eliminate.

And Congress is going its own way on the budget.

``The President's problem is thst he pushes for things without consulting with Congress prior to his pushing,'' says House majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas.

Yesterday's television appeal by President Reagan (not aired ``live'' by any of the three top television networks) was his second this year on the contras. Few thought it would make much difference in a House that has already twice rejected the $100 million aid package.

Reagan said rejection of the aid measure ``would be a tragic mistake. It would not bring the Sandinistas to the bargaining table. Just the opposite. . . . We will have to confront the reality of a Soviet military beachhead inside our defense perimeters -- about 500 miles from Mexico. A future president and Congress will then face nothing but bad choices, followed by worse choices.''

``The President's stand is well known by every member of Congress, so I don't think any number of television appearances is going to change any minds,'' says Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas, who has supported the contra package in the past.

The administration has had some successes. It managed to avoid a legislative veto of an arms sale package to Saudi Arabia earlier this month. The massive tax-reform bill, which the White House strongly approves, seems headed for congressional enactment.

The President's present difficulties with Congress are by no means unique to his administration. Typically, congressional support wanes toward the end of any administration. Analysts have noted a parallel in the distinct falloff in congressional support for presidential initiatives in the fifth year of the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations.

But the contrast between the present state of relations between the Reagan White House and Congress and those in earlier years is all the more striking because of the administration's earlier successes. It was, after all, the US Congress that put its imprimatur on the largest peacetime military buildup in US history, as well as the first Reagan tax cut. The juggernaut of the Reagan revolution seemed so formidable that some believed House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. not to be up to the task of ideological counterweight to the President.

Times have changed. An increasingly feisty Congress has thrown up barriers to the administration's plans across the board of domestic and foreign policy concerns. Mr. O'Neill is retiring from Congress this year feted by his colleagues and regarded even by his critics as a stalwart defender of traditional Democratic Party values, despite the Reagan onslaught.

At the same time, the split in party control between the two Houses -- the first time it's has been this way for six years in more than a century -- has elevated the importance of relations between the two chambers of Congress at the expense of those with the White House. One result is the growing importance of the conference, where House and Senate members meet to iron out differences between their bills.

On the tax-reform bill, the Senate deferred an unprecedented number of amendments for the coming conference. In the ongoing budget conference, members are showing that their priorities differ from those of the Reagan administration. Their sentiment is for raising taxes and sharply reducing or eliminating any increase in defense spending to reach deficit targets mandated by the new Balanced Budget Act. The White House has refused to contemplate either, however, and has remained particularly steadfast against new taxes.

Even yesterday's vote on the massive Tax Reform Act of 1986 underscores how Congress, once spellbound by the Reagan revolution, is stepping determinedly beyond the Reagan era. The vote, which had not yet taken place at press time but was expected to be overwhelmingly in favor of the bill, is a victory of sorts for the President, who has been determined to make tax reform a centerpiece of his administration's legacy.

But the Senate victory is not so much due to Reagan's personal persuasion as it is to the political power of tax reform in this election year.

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