The White House has avoided a full-scale confrontation with Capitol Hill over US policy in the Persian Gulf - for the moment. By promising to keep lawmakers closely apprised of US actions in the Gulf, the Reagan administration has moved to co-opt Congress and dampen criticism of its plan to protect merchant tankers in the Gulf war zone with Navy escorts.
But Congress, wary of allowing the administration much leeway in its conduct of foreign policy after the Iran-contra debacle, is slipping a harness on the White House. This week, both houses are slated to pass bills requiring the Defense Secretary to send a comprehensive report to Congress within seven days on administration plans to put 11 Kuwaiti tankers under the American flag and defend them with US Navy vessels. President Reagan is expected to sign the legislation.
This action follows directly from a series of closed-door meetings Thursday, where Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and national-security adviser Frank Carlucci worked out an agreement with House and Senate leaders promising to keep Congress closely informed of US actions in the region.
``The administration is finally beginning to do the sort of consulting with Congress that should have been done earlier,'' said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, (D) of Georgia.
Meanwhile, administration officials are taking pains to assure Congress and the rest of the world that the US will execute a well-ordered policy in the Gulf. Pentagon officials have won additional time to formulate and refine plans for the mission, which the administration had decided to undertake months ago. And White House aides are expected to use the time to continue lobbying skeptics in the House and Senate Democratic leadership.
As part of those efforts, President Reagan restated the goals of US policy in the Persian Gulf on Friday. He focused on defending ``the free movement of petroleum,'' with force if necessary. But Reagan made no mention of how or when he planned to do this, or anything about flying US flags over Kuwaiti tankers.
Hours earlier, assistant secretary of state Richard W. Murphy told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that no action would be taken to protect the reflagged Kuwaiti vessels ``until the President is satisfied that we will be able to do it properly, and until the Congress has been fully consulted.''
Originally, the government had planned to reflag the first of the Kuwaiti vessels on Wednesday, June 3. But, assistant secretary of defense Richard Armitage assured the committee, ``nothing moves'' until Reagan approves a plan and Congress has been consulted.
Yet many in Congress are uncertain of the basic soundness of the administration's plan and continue to caution against hasty action.
``Until we have consulted on the plan, I reserve my judgement on whether I can support the administration's course of action,'' said Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, (D) of West Virginia, echoing a sentiment shared by a number of his colleagues.
``Many issues regarding our military presence and the possible risks to our ships and the lives of our men in the Gulf remain to be addressed,'' Senator Byrd said.
Similar observations were offered by Sen. James Sasser (D) of Tennessee, recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Bahrain, who warned that the administration's plans to protect Kuwaiti tankers could risk US involvement in the Iran-Iraq war. Iran ``will not be cowed into submission by a simple show of US force,'' the senator asserted. ``This is not the time to be thoughtlessly tempting a country itching for an opportunity to again humiliate the United States.''
White House efforts to win support for its Gulf policy in Congress, particularly among Democrats, are further complicated by the lingering mistrust many lawmakers feel toward the Reagan administration in the wake of the Iran-contra affair.
Joint hearings of the House and Senate committees investigating the affair have included testimony alleging that some administration officials deceived Congress as a matter of course. ``The administration is now reaping the fruit of that,'' says Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D) of New York.
In addition, the Iranian arms sales that undergirded the affair have complicated US policy in the Gulf region, thus undermining the confidence of some key lawmakers in the administration's competence to execute foreign policy.
For example, Mr. Murphy of the State Department testified Friday that Kuwait requested that the US reflag its tankers only after taking a similar appeal to the Soviet Union. ``It was not coincidental that [Kuwait approached Mosocow] in November 1986,'' the month the news of the secret Iranian dealings first leaked out, said Murphy.
At Friday's hearing, Senator Moynihan responded that such Soviet gains in the Persian Gulf region ``may have been the largest geopolitical loss to the United States as a result of the Iran-contra affair.''
But for the moment, the White House has been successful in dampening the intense and nearly unanimous congressional criticism that initially greeted the Kuwaiti reflagging plan. The administration has also effectively, if only temporarily, circumvented demands that it invoke the War Powers Resolution.
Since the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark, which killed 37 sailors, Congress has been calling on the White House to invoke the war powers act, which requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours whenever he sends US combat troops into a foreign country or waters, or substantially increases the number of troops there. If the troops are sent into hostilities, or into areas where hostilities seem imminent, they must be withdrawn within 60 days, unless Congress declares war or authorizes them to remain. By volunteering to keep Congress informed, the President has been able to quiet Congress and avoid the strictures of the act.