Congressional committee squabbles come and go, most of them part of the incessant politicking that is the grist of life on Capitol Hill. But two such tussles, both settled last week, seem certain to leave their marks on the 100th Congress, influencing its relations with the White House, and affecting legislation on an array of defense and foreign policy matters. In the House of Representatives, four Democrats vied for the chairmanship of the Armed Services Committee. In the Senate, two Republicans competed for the top GOP slot on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Months of uncertainty ended last Monday when Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina was given the Foreign Relations slot and last Thursday when Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin beat his rivals for the Armed Services chairmanship.
Loser in the Senate contest was Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana, who while serving as chairman of the committee during the 99th Congress earned plaudits as a conciliator who forged bipartisan alliances on such politically sensitive issues as South Africa sanctions. Senator Helms, on the other hand, has a reputation as one of the most militant conservatives in Congress.
Under normal circumstances, Senator Lugar would have been allowed to stay on as ranking Republican. But Helms entered the Senate four years before Lugar. Two years ago he forfeited the chance to chair the panel so he could head the Agriculture Committee.
This year Helms asserted his claim to the top GOP slot on Foreign Relations on grounds of his seniority. Committee Republicans unanimously rejected his bid, but in a vote of the full Republican Senate caucus he won, 24 to 17.
Helms is expected to bring a new era of fractiousness to the committee. He has been a frequent critic of the State Department - last year using his position as a member of the panel to block 18 diplomatic appointments, either because he opposed the individuals nominated or he wanted a concession on some other matter.
Helms is in the process of replacing Republican committee staff members with conservatives who are not expected to have as close a working relationship with Democratic staff members as their predecessors.
``I'm not sure that's something Jesse cares about,'' says one Republican committee member. ``For him, being ranking member is first and foremost a platform.''
Helms is known as a master parliamentary tactician who has a well-honed skill of blocking legislation he opposes, often by attaching to it a bill opposed by most of his colleagues. It is a device any senator can employ, though few wield it as effectively as Helms. He has, for example, laid plans to foil a Democratic attempt to gain Senate approval of two nuclear testing treaties from the 1970s by trying to append them to the unratified 1979 strategicarms limitation treaty (SALT II). The package would almost certainly not get the two-thirds Senate majority required for treaty ratification. So the three treaties would be defeated.
Representative Aspin will work with much tighter constraints than Helms. Partly out of anger that he supported aid to the Nicaraguan contras and the MX missile, and that he sacrificed Democratic positions in negotiations with the Republican Senate majority on a defense spending bill, House Democrats voted to unseat Aspin Jan. 7.
But they reseated him over Rep. Marvin Leath (D) of Texas, 133 to 116, after two other rivals dropped out of the running. Mr. Leath is one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.
Now Aspin will be expected to be more aggressive in his stance toward the Reagan administration, applying pressure for arms control and defense budget cuts. As a result, Democrats expect the Armed Services Committee to be more critical of the Pentagon and more attuned to the inclinations of House Democrats in the coming months.