Under the clutter of President Bush's foreign policy dealings with his first Congress there is good news: a substantial measure of bipartisan accord that stands in sharp contrast to the tensions of the budget standoff.
Public attention may have been caught up by executive-congressional wrangling over the endgame in the Third World disputes carrying over from the 1980s -- Angola, Afghanistan, Cambodia and El Salvador. The matter of aid for the last is perhaps the one place where an '80s-type political bloodying could yet come about.
Eager to move on from the political battlefields of the Reagan years, however, the administration is pleased to identify the Persian Gulf as its foreign-policy priority on Capitol Hill and to report satisfaction on four Gulf items: providing for a supplemental appropriation to pay for Desert Shield, designing an arms package for Saudi Arabia, blunting and deterring congressional initiatives to bind the president's policy flexibility, and writing off Egypt's debt.
Aid to El Salvador and cancellation of the Egyptian debt are both in the pending foreign aid bill. The pairing has encouraged sponsors of congressionally approved conditions on the Salvadoran aid to believe they can prevail. The administration, insisting it's serious about undoing some of those conditions, contends otherwise. Stay tuned.
What is notable about this particular showdown, nonetheless, is that it is untypical. Early on, this Republican administration accepted a pragmatic requirement for some workable form of bipartisanship with the Democratic Congress. The collapse of the Soviet Union as a global power and the rush of Soviet-American de'tente were dissolving the most serious partisan and ideological differences of the past decade, and making this approach sensible as policy and feasible, even attractive, as politics
The administration didn't at all relish congressional micromanagement of foreign policy, but it was prepared to live with a certain amount of it as the price of advancing its basic policy line. Nor was the kibitzing all bad. On a number of contentious Third World issues, deal maker James Baker, the secretary of state, could fend off harder-line Republican conservatives by citing a practical need to meet a demanding Congress. At the same time, he could hold softer-line Democratic liberals at bay by arguing that he needed a freer hand in the negotiations that they favored but that he had already begun.
There is a frank acknowledgment in official circles that the administration's own internal differences kept Cambodia on the back burner until an impatient Congress forced this issue onto a front burner last summer. The result was the American opening to Hanoi that created the promising international negotiation on Cambodia now in train. On Angola, too, the administration used Democratic pressure to offset the position favored by hard-line Republicans.
To talk to both congressional and administration players in these battles is to realize that most of the jostling and the shadow play have gone on within a context of shared pursuit of a negotiated settlement. The results have been at worst acceptable and at best creditable everywhere except in El Salvador, which is for the Bush administration the successor issue to the take-no-prisoners Nicaragua policy wars of Reagan's time.
There the Salvadoran army's still unpunished murder of the Jesuits shrank the normal possibilities of consensus in Washington, producing a congressional aid formula that is heavy on burdens on the government the United States supports and light on burdens on the guerrillas it opposes. The issue is still in play.
Overall it's been a pretty good day for bipartisanship. That's something to applaud, but not too enthusiastically. The administration's particular success in keeping its Gulf policy hand free has a spongy underside.
The United States is living on the edge of a major presidential war in the Gulf. Congress is leery of conveying hesitation to Saddam Hussein and of accepting responsibility, and it has simply failed to insist on the agreed procedures that would allow it to exercise effectively its war-declaring power under the Constitution. To top it off, at this particularly tense moment it's leaving town. A tiger on the lesser throwaway issues, Congress is a pussycat on this central one. It's bipartisan to a fault.