The House, voicing strong misgivings about a key element of President Reagan's Persian Gulf policy, called last night for a 90-day delay of the administration's plan to give U.S. protection to Kuwaiti oil tankers in the gulf.
The 222-to-184 vote in favor of a delay was seen as a largely symbolic effort to distance Congress from the administration's plan to escort 11 Kuwaiti tankers that will fly the U.S. flag -- in light of assertions by House and Senate leaders that Congress lacks the votes and the time to block the operation, which is scheduled to start in about a week.
The vote followed a largely partisan debate in which Democrats assailed the reflagging plan as "provocative" and doomed to "tragic consequences" and Republicans accused the Democrats of playing politics over foreign policy and signaling a "lack of resolve" to stand by commitments in the Middle East.
In the first of two votes on the administration's plan to give U.S flag protection to Kuwaiti oil tankers, the House rejected, 283 to 126, a proposal by Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) to block the reflagging unless the Soviet Union goes beyond leasing tankers to the Kuwaitis and starts a reflagging operation of its own.
But the House then approved the less drastic proposal from Rep. Mike Lowry (D-Wash.) to delay the operation for three months to allow consideration of alternative strategies for ending the Iran-Iraq war and protecting the flow of oil through the gulf. Democrats supported the delay 200 to 38, while Republicans opposed it 146 to 22.
The Lowry proposal was approved as part of the Coast Guard authorization bill for next year but it failed to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to override a presidential veto, and its chances of being enacted were described as "nil" by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.).
Moreover, action on a nonbinding resolution urging the administration to hold the reflagging operation "in abeyance" while other strategies are explored is being held up in the Senate by a Republican filibuster. Efforts to come up with a bipartisan compromise on the issue have been inconclusive so far, and a cloture vote to shut off the GOP filibuster is scheduled for this morning.
But opponents of the reflagging plan have pushed for votes as an expression of opposition, symbolic as it may be, that would distance Congress and the Democrats from the consequences of a policy that they argue could result in loss of American lives and U.S. involvement in Iran-Iraq hostilities.
It would serve as a "shot across the bow of this administration" that it cannot pursue a "cockamamie" policy in the Middle East with the assurance that "Congress doesn't care," said Aspin in arguing for approval of the 90-day delay.
In response, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) called the delay proposal a "functional equivalent of a congressional slap in the face of the president of the United States" and "proof that the Democratic majority doesn't have a clue about the role the U.S. should play in the world."
"We're here because President Reagan made a lousy promise and we're reluctant to back off from it," said Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer (D-Pa.), who said Congress should vote against the operation, quoting Lincoln to the effect that "bad promises are better broken."
In reference to both the Bennett and Lowry proposals, Republicans contended a congressional vote against the reflagging operation would signal a "lack of will and resolve" by Congress that would heighten, not diminish, the risk of confrontation in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, State Department spokesman Charles E. Redman yesterday denied there was any misunderstanding between the United States and Kuwait over the details of the plan for U.S. warships to escort the 11 reflagged tankers through the gulf.
He said the department had been in contact with the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait yesterday morning to check whether any misunderstanding existed over the escort plan, as alleged Tuesday by Aspin who has just returned from a visit to Kuwait.
The embassy confirmed that "everything is on track," Redman said.
Aspin said Kuwaiti officials had told his delegation they wanted to use the 11 tankers mostly to shuttle oil from Kuwait to Khor Fakkan, a United Arab Emirates port just outside the gulf, where it would be reloaded onto other ships. The shuttle plan would mean more round-trips for each tanker than U.S. officials had originally planned, Aspin said.
He said this would require more U.S. escorts per month than now planned and that the United States would end up protecting most of Kuwait's oil exports, instead of only 30 percent as he had first understood. This could provoke a more hostile Iranian reaction, he warned.
Redman said only one of the 11 tankers would be involved in a shuttle, carrying only 20 percent of the country's total crude exports.
Redman said Kuwait was continuing to discuss chartering two U.S. oil tankers and that the administration saw "no difficulty in providing escort to these two U.S. ships."
Warren Nelson, Aspin's press spokesman, said yesterday the Kuwaitis had told the delegation they planned to sign charter agreements for the two U.S. tankers "within a few days" and that, in addition, four of the other tankers might be used in the shuttle.