President Reagan will undertake a broad review of administration policy toward South Africa today at a time when some senior officials are seeking alternatives to a politically damaging confrontation with Congress over economic sanctions, administration officials said yesterday.
Chief of staff Donald T. Regan "is looking to see if there is any way out" of either a veto of sanctions legislation, or a subsequent veto override by Congress, a senior White House official said. Other officials said Regan and national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane were jointly seeking options that would avoid a major presidential defeat on the South Africa legislation in which Congress overrides a veto.
The "family of options is being refined" and Reagan may decide by Friday which legislative strategy to pursue when the sanctions issue comes up next week, officials said.
Meanwhile, Reagan is to be given a wide-ranging review of the situation in South Africa and is expected to discuss the next steps in administration policy today at a White House meeting. Reagan also is scheduled to travel to North Carolina today for a speech on behalf of his tax-revision plan.
The South Africa policy meeting comes at a time of deepening frustration among some senior administration officials at what they view as a lack of progress toward negotiations and ending the violence that has claimed at least 675 lives in the last year. The Pretoria government of President Pieter W. Botha also has intensifying economic problems.
Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement," or seeking to influence the South African government through dialogue instead of coercion, has come under sharp criticism in recent months.
The president has said repeatedly that he opposes punitive sanctions against South Africa because they would hurt the nation's 21 million blacks rather than help them, and he has threatened to veto sanctions legislation pending on Capitol Hill.
But officials have been searching for options that would stave off a congressional override if Reagan vetoes the sanctions legislation.
One option, disclosed earlier and now contained in a State Department paper, is a presidential veto, followed by an executive order imposing some milder penalties. This would be an attempt to prevent a veto from being overridden.
Such measures would include prohibiting the sale of computers to departments of the South African government that administer apartheid, the system of rigid racial segregation, or prohibiting U.S. government loans to companies that refuse to accept equal-employment guidelines there.
Officials said there appeared to be agreement between Regan and McFarlane -- the president's top two White House advisers -- on the need to resolve the South Africa issue in a way that avoids a veto override. The subject was discussed by Regan late Tuesday afternoon in a meeting of the White House Legislative Strategy Group.
Although White House officials are developing these options, they said the president remains strongly opposed to sanctions and is still likely to veto the bill.
Officials reiterated yesterday that Reagan has not made a final decision on the legislation. They said today's review goes beyond the question of sanctions and would "discuss and analyze" administration policy toward Pretoria. But they said it was not clear that this would lead to any major changes in policy.
Although Reagan has said he opposes sanctions, the White House has also said in recent weeks that he would take into account events in South Africa at the time he had to make a decision, which may come as soon as early next week when the Senate reconvenes.
The decision on the sanctions legislation comes as U.S. officials appear increasingly concerned about events in South Africa. Two weeks ago, the administration called for negotiations on South Africa's future, saying they should begin in a matter of weeks. For several days, the White House issued statements urging Pretoria and black leaders to plan for talks, but so far no talks have been held.
Last week, Reagan described the Pretoria government as "reformist" and said segregation in public places had "all been eliminated," a statement that the White House later acknowledged was not accurate.
White House officials have been sharply divided on the issue, with some urging the president to step up pressure on Pretoria and others opposing this now.
The sanctions legislation is expected to come up for final action in the Senate next week. It cleared the House before the recess.