THE future shape of United States defense policy in an era of GOP congressional control will become a little clearer this week, as the House of Representatives debates the national security portions of the Republican ''Contract With America.''
At its heart, the National Defense Revitalization Act reflects Republican misgivings over US involvement last year in United Nations peacekeeping operations in Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Haiti. The Republican legislation would reduce -- and potentially eliminate -- US funding for such operations and set strict conditions for US participation in future UN military actions.
GOP strikes back
The bill would also resurrect President Reagan's dream of a ''star wars'' antiballistic missile defense program and create a commission to assess the impact of shrinking military budgets. Another provision calls for the admission to NATO of the former communist countries of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
The House is expected to open debate on the bill tomorrow or Wednesday, and its chances of passage are good, GOP aides say. A similar measure sponsored by Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas makes it likely that some version will be sent to President Clinton. He is almost certain to veto it.
Supporters say the bill would halt US participation in UN operations that have little or no bearing on national security. Furthermore, they say, it would end the White House's practice of using Pentagon funds to cover costs exceeding the authorized US share of the annual UN peacekeeping bill.
The practice, they contend, has hurt US military readiness by depriving the Pentagon of money earmarked for training exercises, equipment maintenance and other critical operations.
''We simply cannot respond over and over again to these contingencies [that] lack a clear linkage to our national security,'' says Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Clinton administration and its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill have lobbied hard against the bill. They say it embodies a direct intrusion into the executive branch's constitutional stewardship of US defense and foreign policies, and would greatly undermine US relations with the UN.
Particularly troublesome to opponents is the bill's ban on US troops serving in UN peacekeeping operations under foreign commanders except in certain circumstances. ''The bill is almost certainly unconstitutional. Repub- licans in Congress are attempting to dictate the circumstances under which the commander in chief can deploy US forces,'' argues Rep. Robert Toricelli (D) of New Jersey, a member of the House International Relations Committee.
Defense Secretary William Perry opposes the bill's call for Congress to create a ''National Security Commission'' to study defense spending and planning. He charges that the panel would ''usurp'' his responsibility of shaping US military policies.
The administration and GOP lawmakers agree on a provision of the bill that would lower the US share of UN peacekeeping costs from 31.7 percent to 25 percent. Such a cut is already due to take effect this fall under a law enacted last year. The new bill, however, would also require the president to seek reimbursement from the UN of peacekeeping costs beyond the annual US contribution.
Critics note that had the bill been law last year, the US would have withheld all of its UN payments and demanded $300 million in compensation. That is because the US's unbudgeted UN peacekeeping costs came to $1.8 billion, while its authorized share and its annual UN dues totaled $1.5 billion.
Backers counter that the measure merely requires the president to obtain congressional clearance to pay unbudgeted United Nations peacekeeping costs in the same way that all appropriations are approved.
''The legislation is designed to ensure that there will be prior consultation and cost analysis with the Congress by an administration before it embarks upon a peacekeeping operation, and that Congress will not simply be handed the bill after the fact,'' says Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York, the House International Relations Committee chairman.
He was referring to a $2.6 billion supplemental appropriation the White House is seeking to repay funds diverted from the Pentagon to pay for additional UN peacekeeping costs last year.