Battles apparent and real

PRESIDENT Reagan's veto of the Clean Water Act and Congress's override of that veto was a confrontation of convenience. With the outcome never really in doubt, both the White House and the Congress could afford to strike postures they intend to carry through the year. President Reagan's veto was futile. Yet he signaled he could still frustrate congressional initiatives in 1987 that do not have the overwhelming backing of a clean water bill. Congress indicated an eagerness to challenge the President's authority. Republican legislators seek independence from an Iran-wounded White House and an administration reputedly depleted of new ideas. Democrats boast they are ``ready to run the government,'' flush with majorities in both chambers and improved presidential prospects for 1988.

Given this legislative opening round, 1987 looks to be a year of confrontation, apparent and real. Among the key issues: aid to the Nicaragua contras, trade legislation, arms control inducements, health care, and of course the House and Senate inquiries into the Iran arms affair.

Ronald Reagan should not be counted out of the game just yet, however. His ablest Cabinet player, James Baker at Treasury, brought congressional leaders into successful negotiations over the tax bill in 1986, an election year. Now Mr. Baker is in charge of an array of economic maneuvers that involve dollar valuation, trade talks, and legislative proposals. At the moment, international economic affairs is the administration's most vibrant policy area. We could yet see a more bipartisan, consensus-based economic approach in Washington than now seems likely.

Also, Health and Human Services Secretary Otis Bowen has taken the public lead on insurance against catastrophic illness, a legislative comer that could finish in successful compromise.

And some of the more confrontational voices - White House communications director Patrick Buchanan and the Defense Department's Richard Perle - are reported or rumored soon to go.

Nonetheless, the Democratic majority in Congress has begun to attack where it senses vulnerability. In assessments today of how voting for president might go in 1988, Democrats have picked up strength in the Middle West and South, among Roman Catholics, low-income whites, and independents. These are the very constituencies with which the GOP had hoped to forge a new majority. While such voters may not be utterly lost to the Republicans, they are at least looking to see what the Democrats have to offer.

Mr. Reagan opened the year with a rhetorically confrontational State of the Union message, followed by a more temperate economic message. The Congress has responded with its own water-bill gambit and veto override. But the 1987 legislative game has really yet to be played, and the prospect for some significant working together should not be discounted.

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