A divided and confused Senate, struggling for a role in the administration's Persian Gulf policy, approved a resolution yesterday requiring President Reagan to report its military strategy in the gulf but delaying for several months possible congressional action to change it.
The Senate initially defeated the resolution, but reconsidered after parliamentary maneuvering and a tongue-lashing by its sponsor, Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who told his colleagues they looked "terrible" and "musclebound" for refusing to face up to the administration's gulf policy.
The resolution, cosponsored by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), is far less than the invocation of the War Powers Resolution sought by some senators. The resolution would require that forces be withdrawn from the gulf within 60 days unless Congress declares war or extends the deadline.
Byrd and Warner insisted that their measure was the only way to get a splintered Senate to respond to the escalating conflict in the Persian Gulf and, if it chooses, to pressure the administration to end its policy of placing Kuwaiti tankers under the protection of the U.S. flag and Navy ships.
Failure to act, Warner said, would plunge the Senate "back into a boiling cauldron of indecision."
The Senate first voted 51 to 47 to reject the so-called Warner-Byrd amendment, and then reconsidered and voted 54 to 44 to approve the measure.
Byrd, visibly angered that 16 Democrats had broken with him on the first vote, took the floor to berate his colleagues.
"I think the Senate looks simply terrible," Byrd said, pacing at his desk. "It can't move. It's musclebound. The senators want to have a voice in formulation of policy in the Persian Gulf, but it can't do anything. It can't act . . . . I hope senators will choose to step up to their responsibilities."
Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), who had unsuccessfully sought a vote to invoke the War Powers Resolution, agreed it was essential "that the world perceive we've done something . . . directed toward breaking the stalemate."
But the resolution drew sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike, who complained that it was a confused "mishmash" that neither meets the war powers issue head on nor clearly spells out what future action the Senate intends to take.
"The American people expect a little more from the Senate than this," said Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), who favors invoking the War Powers Resolution. "I hope we vote down this entire mishmash and get down to the War Powers Act."
Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said that if critics of the administration's policy were serious, then "why not introduce a resolution saying no more money shall be appropriated for forces in the Persian Gulf? That's something the people of the United States understand."
Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.) complained that Byrd was attempting to rush through his resolution, without input from the Foreign Relations Committee or a careful screening of last-minute amendments
"In the final analysis, I don't know what we're doing," Pryor said.
Although a substantial number of senators say they fear that the administration's reflagging policy could draw the country into a war with Iran, a Republican-dominated minority filibustered for a month to block the effort by Weicker and Hatfield to trigger provisions of the War Powers Resolution.
That resolution limits presidential authority to deploy U.S. military personnel in areas "where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances." The law, which Reagan contends does not apply to the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf, requires the president to report to Congress within 48 hours after deployment of U.S. forces and requires that those forces be withdrawn within 60 days unless Congress declares war or extends the deadline.
Yesterday, the Justice Department told a federal judge that if the court decided the War Powers Resolution should be invoked, it would send Iran the "wrong message" and might force the United States to increase its involvement there.
The department's comments came in response to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court here by more than 100 congressional Democrats asking the court to force invocation of the War Powers Resolution. The administration claims the resolution is unconstitutional.
Under the measure the Senate approved yesterday, the president would be required to submit a detailed report within 30 days that reviews the range of U.S. commitments and military involvements in the Persian Gulf. Then, 30 days after the report is filed, the Senate would vote on an as-yet undefined resolution, which could do anything from declaring war in the gulf to cutting off funds for any further military involvement to doing nothing.
Byrd said that nobody in the Senate was seriously suggesting that the administration withdraw its forces from the Persian Gulf, but that the Senate was seeking an equal footing with the president in shaping long-term policy in that region. In opposing the measure, Dole said it was unrealistic of Byrd to ask members to vote for the Warner-Byrd amendment without knowing what the resolution ultimately will say.
The resolution, which must be approved by the House and signed by the president, in no way alters the War Powers Resolution, which Byrd and others say must eventually be clarified. In approving the resolution, the Senate went on record expressing approval of this week's attack on an Iranian oil platform in retaliation for last Friday's Iranian attack on the U.S.-flagged Sea Isle City in Kuwaiti waters.
The Senate also approved an amendment by Dole, stating that nothing in the resolution should be construed to limit the president's constitutional powers as commander in chief.