A Reagan administration proposal to invite Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to address a joint meeting of Congress during the superpower summit collapsed yesterday when rebellious congressional Republicans banded together to denounce the plan.
White House officials attempted to cushion the political embarrassment of withdrawing the invitation by denying that it had ever been made. President Reagan told reporters that the Soviets "had never formally asked" for Gorbachev to make the speech.
In fact, White House officials said Tuesday that the request for the Gorbachev address had been forwarded to House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) and Senate Majority leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). Responding to reporters' inquiries, a spokesman for Wright said at the time that Gorbachev had been asked to speak to a joint meeting of Congress at 10 a.m. Dec. 9.
Wilson Morris, the spokesman, said the request had come in a telephone call from a White House official. "It's true it was informal, but so is the annual request for the president to make his State of the Union address," Morris said.
Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) sounded the death knell for the joint meeting proposal when he said on the Senate floor that it had become obvious that the plan for a Gorbachev address "has raised very serious concerns on the part of some in Congress and, judging by my mail and phone calls, on the part of many in this country."
Dole, who had conferred with White House officials before his speech, said that "no one's interest will be served if any address to the Congress is firmly laid on for Gorbachev's schedule and later has to be canceled or generates demonstrations on the floor of the House . . . . So I would hope that this idea of an address can be shelved now, in the planning stage and before anything is set in concrete."
The proposal for the Gorbachev address, whose origins were bitterly disputed in the administration, unleashed what one White House official called "the pent-up frustration" of House Republicans. It was directed both at Wright for favoring the idea and at the president for supposedly originating it.
Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), a member of the House Republican leadership, summed up the feelings of his GOP colleagues: "Addressing a joint meeting of Congress is a high honor, one of the highest honors we can accord anyone. Given the fact of continuing Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, Soviet repression in eastern Europe and Soviet actions in Africa and Central America, it is totally inappropriate to confer this honor upon Gorbachev. He is an adversary, not an ally."
However, Cheney endorsed what has now become a White House alternate plan of having Gorbachev meet informally with congressional leaders, and predicted that he would be "treated with respect" on Capitol Hill. He said a dialogue with Gorbachev is "perfectly appropriate" and added that many members are "eager to meet him."
Still pending is a White House proposal for Gorbachev and Reagan to address the citizens of each other's country on television after they sign a treaty eliminating medium- and shorter-range nuclear missiles. The signing ceremony is tentatively planned for Dec. 8, first day of the summit.
Democratic congressional sources said Byrd and Wright readily accepted the White House decision to withdraw the invitation for the joint meeting. A House Democratic source said that Wright "very much favored" the idea of a joint meeting, but that "Byrd never was too keen for it from the beginning."
After the proposal collapsed yesterday, White House and State Department officials blamed each other.
According to White House sources, the subject was discussed the first week of November at a meeting between U.S. and Soviet teams at the White House. These sources said that White House communications director Tom Griscom put forward several options for informal exchanges, including a breakfast with congressional leaders and a dialogue with members of the Senate.
One source familiar with the discussions said that the U.S. team was then told by the Soviets that Secretary of State George P. Shultz, during a meeting in Moscow, had proposed the idea of Gorbachev addressing a joint meeting. "It was bothersome, to say the least, to hear this idea being presented to us by the Soviets," the source said.
A State Department official described this version as "nonsense." He said Shultz had no objections to a joint meeting but had not initiated it. The official said the consensus of the White House planning meeting was that Gorbachev would be invited to a breakfast with the leadership and also to a meeting with a larger congressional group.
This official said that subsequently Yuri Dubinin, the Soviet ambassador to Washington, proposed the idea for the speech and that Wright, Byrd and White House officials had agreed to it.Staff writers Helen Dewar and Don Oberdorfer contributed to this report.