Election years traditionally spell trouble for foreign aid bills in Congress, since they are measures whose constituency does not vote.
But this year those troubles have been greatly compounded by Congress' cost-cutting mood, by Congress' desire to weigh in with its own directions in setting foreign policy, and by differing interpretations of the "human rights" issue President Carter has raised.
It all adds up to some important tests for the Carter administration in the coming weeks.
The first test comes on the Senate floor this week, when the administration, after heavy lobbying, seeks to lift the congressionally imposed embargo on military aid to Turkey despite strong congressional opposition. Carter has called it the most important foreign policy legislation on the Hill. The vote is expected to be close.
However, an amendment by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), lifting the embargo but conditioning future military and economic aid on progress in settling the Cyprus issue with Greece, has been deemed acceptable by the administration and may offer fence-sitters a way out. Congressional leaders on both sides support the amendment, a McGovern aide said, suggesting that it may tip the balance in favor of the administration. The House will act on the military aid bill and the embargo later.
On the second test, the administration outlook is bleaker since it appears unable to avoid either wholesale spending slashes or broad new restrictions when a $7.4 billion foreign aid appropriations bill comes up in the House.
The Democratic leadership has pulled the bill from the schedule several times, and even considered junking it entirely in favor of a simple resolution continuing aid at last year's rate. But cuts and restrictions could be added to the continuing resolution, too, so the leadership has tenatively decided to take up the bill Aug. 1 or 2, and salvage what it can.
The hope is that the traditionally more liberal Senate, which won't mark up its own bill until after the House has acted, will produce a House-Senate conference measure at least palatable to Carter. However, the Senate is in a cost-cutting mood also, and some are predicting a continuing resolution, pushed through in the final moments before adjournment, will be the best the administration can get.
Three years ago, in reaction to Turkey's invasion of Cyprus with U.S.-supplied weapons, Congress voted to terminate military aid to Turkey. The intention was to force a settlement of territorial issues on the Mediterranean island.
Though Carter supported the embargo during his presidential campaign, the administration now says that the embargo has not worked, and, in fact, Turkey will not negotiate while it exists. The administration claims it has jeopardized the alliance with Turkey and Turkey's role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during a buildup by Soviet forces.
The administration appeals have run headon into heavy lobbying by the U.S. Greek community and the single-minded determination of what is being called "the Gang of Four" - Reps. John Brademas (D-In.) and Benjamin Rosenthal (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.).
They contend that the administration has actually undermined the embargo by sending clear signals to Turkey that it favors lifting it. They contend that Turkey has not taken one concrete step toward settlement on Cyprus and that the United States has received only vague promises in return for its offer to repeal the embargo.
By a one-vote margin, the House International Relations Committee voted to lift the embargo, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opposed its repeal by 8 to 4.
McGovern believes Congress and the executive branch are "neutralizing" one another with their opposite approaches to Turkey. Under his amendment, future aid could only be given to Turkey, Greece of Cyprus if the president certifies progress in negotiations or certifies that aid would contribute to progress.
Actually, Turkey is receiving about $175 million in military aid loans. As an inducement to Greece, McGovern would increase Greece's military aid from $140 million to a similar $175 million.
Another issue in the $2.8 billion military aid bill is the transfer of $800 million in arms to South Korea preparatory to withdrawal of U.S. forces. Some oppose giving Korea the arms, some oppose withdrawal, and the House has the additional problem of being on record against further aid unless Korea cooperates in getting its former ambassador to testify before the House committee investigating the Korean influence-buying scandals.
The $7.4 billion foreign aid appropriations bill is in very bad shape" in the House, according to Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), a key member of the Appropriations Committee.
The bill faces spending slashes plus numerous attempts to impose the kinds of restrictions on aid that President Carter has complained would tie his hands in foreign policy.
In the wake of California's Proposition 13, the House began cutting appropriations bills for domestic programs and agencies by 2 percent across the board. When the foreign aid bill goes to the floor, Rep. Clarence Miller (R-Ohio), author of the 2 percent cuts, wants to widen the slash to 8 percent across the board.
To further complicate the Democratic leadership's problems, Rep. Clarence Long (D-Md.), chairman of the foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, has countered with a proposal of his own. He would slash $584 million, the equivalent of 8 percent of the whole bill, from two international lending institutions, the Inter-American Development Bank and the International Development Association. Long believes that's preferable to cutting aid across the board, which would affect Israel and other U.S. allies.
Obey said this would make the United States the only country to default on its commitments to the banks.
Besides slashing contributions to international lending institutions, others want to prohibit the money from being loaned to communist countries such as Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. A restriction on direct aid to those countries already exists but this, if it stays in the bill, would be the first restriction on indirect aid. The House passed such restrictions last year but they were eliminated in conference.
Technically, the multilateral lending institutions, which are supposed to be politically neutral, cannot accept contributions with strings attached.
But those institutions, through which the United States channels about 52 percent of its foreign aid, are looked upon with increasing disfavor on the Hill. Republicans believe the United states loses control over aid by making loans through the banks, and the World Bank recently inflamed that view by proposing to lend $160 million to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
As in 1977, an attempt will be made to direct U.S. representatives on the banks to vote against loans to countries violating human rights. Though the Senate dropped that position last year, it is likely to be offered in the House again. Carter argues, despite his human rights campaign, that this is too rigid, and points out that if a government changes hands he is helpless to aid the new regime.