Congress wrestles with how to oppose reflagging tankers

When President Reagan announced his plan to hoist United States flags over 11 Kuwaiti tankers, Congress responded with near-unanimous criticism. Now, as the White House prepares to implement its strategy, Congress finds itself unable to do much about it. ``We recognize that there's not much we can do to keep him from going ahead if he is determined to do so,'' says House majority whip Tony Coelho (D) of California.

That recognition reflects the institutional and political limitations Democrats are straining against as they try to exercise greater influence on the Reagan administration's foreign policy initiatives. The President's prestige and influence on Capitol Hill have faded - partly because he is approaching the end of his second term and partly because his administration's credibility has been undermined by the Iran-contra affair - but the prerogatives of his presidency are still considerable, especially in the realm of foreign policy.

``He is the commander in chief,'' observes Rep. Dante Fascell (D) of Florida, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. ``When the president commits the United States to a course of action - even an unpopular one - there are going to be all sorts of untoward consequences internationally if he changes his mind. But that might still be finessed.''

How to finess that change is the challenge before Democrats, who are hoping to craft a legislative vehicle this week to express congressional displeasure with the administration's Persian Gulf policy.

Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed doubts about the White House strategy, which would reflag the Kuwaiti tankers and provide them with US Navy escorts as a way to maintain maritime rights in the Gulf war zone and counter Soviet efforts to increase their influence in the region. Despite a veritable parade of Reagan officials who have testified before congressional committees to explain Reagan's Gulf policy, those doubts remain.

``They simply have not explained themselves well at all,'' says Rep. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Yet Democrats may find it hard to tap GOP discontent. ``It shouldn't be a Republican or Democratic issue,'' says Mr. Coelho. ``But the administration feels it's on the ropes and [is] fighting back on everything ... so the atmosphere here becomes one in which it becomes more difficult for the two sides to work together.''

Counters a top Republican Senate aide: ``The Democrats think they have an issue on which they can skewer the President, and they're going to run with it.''

Still, the Democrats are in a quandary, unable to decide exactly what they want to run with. A resolution calling for a halt or delay in the reflagging would probably pass in the House, where Democrats hold a commanding majority.

In the Senate, however, where Republicans hold 46 of 100 seats, ``it probably won't go far,'' concedes Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, co-sponsor of a bill that would block the reflagging.

But that may be beside the point, congressional leaders say. Many lawmakers are demanding the opportunity to register their official disapproval of the administration's actions.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Democratic leaders have other concerns. ``The truth is there are no attractive alternatives to reflagging,'' says one senior House Democrat, adding that the administration exacerbated tensions in the area by illicitly providing arms to Iran. ``But we're faced with the dilemma: Do we support a policy in which we have no confidence, or do we oppose the reflagging and appear to be always afraid, always too ready to say `no'''?

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