The Senate wound up two months of fretting over the Reagan administration's plan to put Kuwaiti oil tankers under protection of the U.S. flag in the Persian Gulf and finally passed a resolution urging "alternatives to the reflagging" -- just after Old Glory was hoisted over two Kuwaiti ships.
Having stalled for weeks over sterner expressions of opposition, the Senate approved the resolution by voice vote after its chief sponsor, Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), made the proposal sound like a jobs program, noting that alternatives such as Kuwaiti chartering of U.S. vessels would provide work for unemployed American sailors.
"There's 350 jobs here potentially on those 11 vessels" that the U.S. has agreed to reflag and escort through the Persian Gulf, Murkowski said in urging approval of his proposal as an amendment to the trade bill the Senate was rushing to complete. "Why should not some of them be U.S. jobs?" he asked.
But, even then, supporters of the administration's policy let the measure pass only after insisting that senators be allowed to interpret the resolution as they choose, thereby taking some of the edge off its implied criticism of the administration's reflagging policy.
Debate over Murkowski's resolution came only hours after the U.S. flag was raised over two former Kuwaiti ships scheduled to travel under U.S. naval escort through the Persian Gulf beginning today.
Murkowski conceded that action would come too late to have any impact on the reflagging of those two vessels, but he said it would send a "strong message to pursue something else on the remaining eight or nine tankers" slated to be put under the U.S. flag in the near future.
As an alternative, he said the United States could lease or charter any of 40 or more idle U.S. ships, along with their American crews, noting that a similar charter operation has been undertaken by both the Soviet Union and Britain to help guarantee the flow of oil through the crossfire of the Iran-Iraq war in the Persian Gulf.
Anxious to avoid even implied criticism of the reflagging operation, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) sought to reword the resolution to suggest that lease or charter of U.S. tankers be considered as an "additional" course of action or as a presidential option "in the future."
But critics of the changes objected, and Warner retreated to his insistence that the resolution be left open to interpretation on that point.
Supporters of stronger opposition to the administration's policy protested Warner's objections but went along in the end.