President Reagan's decision to turn the political problem of Central America over to a bipartisan commission headed by Henry A. Kissinger drew mixed reviews yesterday, reviving an old debate over the limits of partisanship in foreign policy.
Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) endorsed the commission and applauded the selection of the former secretary of state as its head.
But there was criticism of the Kissinger choice from both the political left and the right, with some Democrats warning that their party is making a mistake to "buy in" on Reagan's controversial Central American policy by participating in the commission.
Nonetheless, Reagan reportedly enlisted four major Democratic political figures, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, former Democratic national chairman Robert S. Strauss, Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as members of the commission or its congressional advisory group.
Kissinger, meanwhile, was denounced yesterday at a news conference by leaders of several New Right groups as "the mortician of American national interests."
Rep. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a liberal critic of Central American policy, said that Kissinger's record is one of "total reliance on militarism and power. I can't see anything good coming of it."
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said, "There may be someone in this broad land who is lower on my list of choices than Mr. Kissinger, but I can't think of him."
Chairman of the Western Hemisphere affairs subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms said that he will call Kissinger before the panel to find out "what, if anything, he knows about Central America."
The original Senate sponsors of the bipartisan commission idea adopted by Reagan said yesterday that they were pleased by his move. Jackson called it "a good first step," and said that Kissinger's "prestige" would be an asset for the commission. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) said Kissinger "can be objective and independent. He doesn't have to carry water for anyone."
But Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), who co-sponsored a similar House resolution with Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), said that he was "disappointed" after hearing Kissinger's name.
"It sends the wrong kind of signal," Barnes said. "The Latins best remember Kissinger as one of the architects of our policy in Chile, which resulted in the overthrow of the government. He's not known for his advocacy of development assistance in the Third World."
Conservatives voiced the opposite worry. Howard E. Phillips, head of the Conservative Caucus, called Kissinger "the symbol of the abandonment of our own interests and our own allies." Kemp, trying to calm those criticisms, said, "I believe he will do a good job. He wants to do one."
Rep. Clarence D. Long (D-Md.), whose House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations must approve funds for Central America policy, said, "I hope it is only a trial balloon . . . . I would like to see it shot down.
"I think the commission idea is a good one," Long said, "but I can't imagine a person appointed to head it up who would be less likely to have the confidence of Congress."
Behind the controversy that always attends mention of Kissinger there was a larger dispute among Democrats on the political wisdom of joining high-profile presidential commissions dealing with controversial issues.
Twice before Reagan has turned this year to similar commissions in areas where public opinion and congressional majorities were opposed to his policies. A bipartisan commission headed by Alan Greenspan, chairman of President Ford's council of economic advisers, came up with a compromise solution on Social Security financing.
And a commission headed by Ford's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, gained at least temporary congressional support for continued funding of the MX missile.
A White House aide said that the political purpose of the new commission is similar to the Scowcroft and Greenspan panels: to help cement Democrats to Reagan's goals and, if need be, to provide Reagan an umbrella under which to make accommodations with critics.
While the commission's mandate will focus on long-term issues in Central America, the official said, a secondary charge will be to "build a national consensus for the policy we have."
In both the previous cases, some congressional Democrats complained that they lost an issue to use against Reagan and saved him from political embarrassment. They said that they fear the same thing will happen again.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month found that, by a 3-to-2 margin, voters said they thought Reagan and Democratic leaders were working against each other, rather than together, on Central America policy.
But the same poll found that a plurality of voters said they thought Democratic leaders in Congress had "given in too much" to Reagan on Social Security.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who gave the official Democratic response on television to Reagan's speech on Latin America earlier this year, said yesterday that he is concerned that "we can end up, as we did with the MX, pulling the administration's chestnuts out of the fire.
"The Reagan policy is not popular. The administration understands that and will use this [commission] to minimize the damage."