WASHINGTON — By their choice of two controversial committee leaders earlier this week, Democrats and Republicans in Congress demonstrated that they are gearing up for a highly partisan showdown over arms control and other important defense and foreign policy issues in the next two years.
The selections of Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina as ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee were clearly based on a feeling among members of both parties that they must be more combative as they approach the crucial contest for control of the presidency in 1988.
"These two choices--Helms in the Senate, Aspin in the House--show that both parties are ready to draw the differences between themselves on foreign policy and defense policy," said a Democratic leadership aide who declined to be identified. "Whatever success we have as a party will depend on how well we draw those differences."
Seniority and Style
Although some moderate Republicans voted for Helms on the ground that they were simply upholding the seniority system, the maverick conservative's style and ideology were certainly not overlooked when the GOP caucus voted, 24 to 17, to install him as the ranking Republican of Foreign Relations instead of moderate Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).
Helms' supporters made no secret that they were looking ahead to the next election by putting him forth as their leading spokesman on foreign policy issues. Those who attended the closed Senate Republican caucus in which he was selected last Wednesday said Sen. Steven D. Symms (R-Ida.) made a speech stressing that the GOP would find it easier to raise money from conservatives in the next two years with Helms in that role.
Some Republicans also privately expressed the view that Lugar, who became Foreign Relations Committee chairman two years ago after Helms stepped aside, had shown himself to be too conciliatory with Senate Democrats during the last two years--particularly by writing a South African sanctions bill that was passed over a veto by President Reagan.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, is believed to have supported Helms. Senate Republican sources said Dole allied himself with the North Carolina senator in hopes of gaining the support of Southern conservatives for his presidential bid and of receiving the assistance of Helms' powerful, right-wing political machine, the Congressional Club.
In his new role, Helms is expected to battle the Senate's Democratic majority on virtually every issue of interest to GOP conservatives and to resist strongly efforts by liberal Democrats to force the President to continue to abide by the unratified 1979 strategic arms limitation treaty. Only a few hours after being chosen, he took the necessary parliamentary steps to force a Senate showdown later this year on the issue of SALT II compliance.
Although conservatives such as Symms view Helms' combativeness as a boon to Republican electoral hopes in 1988, even some Republicans who supported him fear that his style may make it tougher for them to build broad support for Reagan's policies in Congress in the next two years. Unlike Lugar, Helms is not likely to be able to win the necessary Democratic votes for important Administration programs, such as aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.
'No Coalition Builder'
"Helms is certainly no coalition builder," said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Republicans may pay a high price for this. The Democrats must be delighted."
As a result, liberal Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has told colleagues that he sees the choice of Helms as a development that will help liberals in their efforts to defeat Reagan Administration policies on arms control and other key issues.
"Having Helms there is going to contribute to the general ideological gridlock," said a Senate Republican who declined to be identified.
Likewise, partisanship and ideology were key factors in the reelection of Aspin as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, a job he has held for the last two years. Despite many complaints in the past that he lacked commitment to liberal ideals, Aspin won on a 133-116 vote by proving that he would be more willing to challenge the Republicans and the Administration than his chief rival, Rep. Marvin Leath (D-Tex.).
Many Democrats said after the vote that they were persuaded to support Aspin after reading an analysis of Leath's voting record, which showed that he had a 60% voting record in favor of Reagan's policies and only a 30% record in favor of the policies of former Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
"It came down to a choice between an unreliable liberal and a reliable conservative," Ornstein said. "Leath was clearly outside the mainstream of the Democratic caucus, which is generally quite liberal."
Aspin, who last year got himself in trouble with fellow Democrats by voting in favor of aid to the Nicaraguan rebels and for the MX missile, was able to redeem himself with liberals by pledging to support stronger arms control measures.
In exchange for their support, liberal Democrats in the House expect Aspin to restrain Reagan's defense program by cutting funds for the Strategic Defense Initiative and by forcing the President to abide by the SALT II pact and to accept a limited ban on nuclear testing.