Both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders yesterday expressed frustration over the Reagan administration's failure to consult them in planning large-scale U.S. military maneuvers in Central America.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) sent President Reagan a letter saying they were "most concerned that officials of your administration did not foresee the need to consult with the Congress prior to initiating such serious actions."
They asked Reagan to designate administration officials to help Congress set up "a continuing program of keeping the congressional leadership and appropriate committees fully informed on a timely basis." They said this should include "consultative procedures" during August and the first two weeks of September, when Congress will be in recess.
"We do not know of anyone in the Congress who would deny you the full and unequivocal support which you must have when combat troops are deployed to protect the legitimate national security interest of this country," the two Democratic leaders said.
"But we also can assure you that the members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, must feel confident that, upon providing that support, we do so based upon full, accurate and timely information.
"We deeply regret that no such information was provided in this case, and that virtually all our information has been derived from published reports in the news media."
Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) also told reporters that he has "indicated to the administration a need for more regular consultations." And House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said, "I would hope that consultations would improve."
Rank-and-file complaints about a lack of consultation also surfaced Wednesday in separate briefings for senators and for House Republicans by Secretary of State George P. Shultz and national security affairs adviser William P. Clark. House Democrats are still in the dark, O'Neill protested yesterday.
"This is the most unusual and unprecedented thing I've seen in a long, long time," O'Neill said. "They're keeping us in a void as far as the military operations are concerned."
Michel, who complained to President Reagan on Monday that even Republicans were forced to rely on the news media for information on administration plans for Central America, said he came away from Wednesday's briefing for House GOP members reassured that "you're not going to have another Vietnam."
But he said House Republicans still urged Shultz and Clark to improve congressional consultations. "We're like the front-line infantry" and have got to know what "the generals" are doing, Michel said.
Byrd said he looked around the room during the senators' briefing and asked about 60 colleagues there if the administration had kept any of them advised. No one raised a hand, Byrd said.
That session, which lasted about a half-hour, was "a step in the right direction" but could not be considered adequate consultation, Byrd added. He said Baker told Shultz and Clark that the Carter administration consulted weekly with Congress during the hostage crisis in Iran and urged the Reagan administration do the same now.
The president likes to talk about "bipartisan cooperation" with Congress but is guilty of "bipartisan arrogance" in taking the support of both parties for granted, Byrd complained.
"The natives are restless and with good reason, I believe," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senators are upset not only about not being consulted but also at "not being leveled with" when briefings are held, Biden said.