Senate leaders brushed aside the controversial 1973 War Powers Resolution yesterday and proposed sharply scaled-back congressional constraints for the Reagan administration's tanker-escort operation in the Persian Gulf.
The proposed compromise would require the president to report to Congress on the operation within 60 days from enactment and spells out procedures under which Congress could vote 30 days later on continuation, termination or modification of the operation.
Unlike the War Powers Resolution, it does not provide for pullout of U.S. forces after 90 days unless Congress votes to continue their deployment.
The proposal was introduced by Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) after the Senate failed for the second time this month to demonstrate enough votes to break a Republican filibuster against stronger war-powers constraints.
By a 52-to-37 vote, the Senate turned back a GOP-led move to block efforts to invoke the 1973 law in the wake of mounting warfare in the gulf, including a firefight between U.S. helicopters and Iranian gunboats Wednesday.
The vote indicated that a majority of the Senate favored imposing the law's restrictions on the gulf operation. But it also demonstrated that war-powers proponents lacked the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and shut off a filibuster. An attempt to impose cloture on a similar measure failed last week, 54 to 45.
After the Senate hit its latest impasse on the issue, Byrd began discussions with other leaders, including Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and ranking committee Republican John W. Warner (Va.), who joined him in supporting the new compromise effort, according to Democratic aides.
The proposal, sponsored by Byrd and Warner, is expected to come up for debate and possible action next week. It was not clear whether it would run into objections from war-powers advocates, but Democratic leadership sources said they expected it could be passed without serious trouble.
Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) reportedly had reservations about the measure, and there was no immediate comment from the White House, which has consistently refused to invoke the law, most recently in response to the U.S.-Iranian combat on Wednesday.
But earlier in the day President Reagan renewed his objections to congressional intervention. "You can't have 535 secretaries of state," he said in an interview with Cable News Network, referring to members of the House and Senate. "What confidence would the world have in you" if the president needed congressional approval for action, he asked.
The Byrd-Warner measure expresses support for "a continued U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf region and the right of nonbelligerent shipping to free passage in this region" but also stated that Congress "continues to express reservations" about the reflagging and escort of Kuwaiti tankers.
Unlike an earlier proposal from Byrd and Nunn, it would avoid a formal declaration that the War Powers Resolution applies to the Persian Gulf and would instead simply observe that conditions in the gulf "justify" a report from the administration.
The report, to be submitted within 60 days, would be a "complete review" of the range of U.S. commitments and military involvements, including anticipated duration of the operation, progress toward achievement of objectives and costs to date as well as estimated costs for the future.
After another 30 days, Congress would be required to act, without threat of filibuster or other delaying tactics, on "a resolution, if such resolution is submitted," dealing with the gulf operation. The resolution could take any form, ranging from extension to cessation of the operation.
This means the escort operation would continue unless Congress approves legislation to end it and can muster the two-thirds vote that would be required to overcome a presidential veto. Under the War Powers Resolution, the operation would be terminated if Congress does nothing either way after 90 days from the date when the law was invoked.
During debate, Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.) argued in favoring of invoking the War Powers Resolution, contending that there is no longer any question whether hostilities are threatened, as required by the law.