WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, responding on behalf of Democrats to the President's State of the Union address Tuesday night, questioned the competence of the Administration in the Iran arms affair and warned of "a gathering sense of mistrust" across the nation.
The West Virginia senator called for a complete accounting of the Iran arms scandal. "The Administration has the obligation to tell the American people exactly what led to the arms-for-hostages deal--and what happened to accountability in the White House," he said.
Byrd's comments, made to a nationwide television audience, were his strongest to date on the subject of clandestine arms sales to Iran, although the senator seemed to aim his attack more at the Reagan Administration in broad terms rather than at the President himself.
'Contradiction to Policy'
"The sale of arms to Iran, in direct contradiction to our stated foreign policy, raises real questions about trust," Byrd said. "But it also raises real doubts about competence. Without competence--and a good measure of common sense--government will have a tough time earning the nation's trust . . . .
"That's why so many find the Iranian affair so troubling. It was a breach of faith both here and abroad."
Sharing the platform for the Democratic response to Reagan, House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas focused on domestic policies. Wright described a bleak picture of a nation caught in "a disturbing new reality--not upward mobility but downward mobility."
"The average 30-year-old American today is making 26% less than his older brother did just 10 years ago. The average 45-year-old couple is finding it harder, not easier, to send their children to college."
Wright suggested a vast reordering of national priorities to emphasize education and the preservation of family farms, as well as aggressive--but largely unspecified--policies to reduce U.S. trade and budget deficits.
"The President sometimes likes to criticize Congress for what he calls 'big spending,' " Wright said. But, the Speaker added, thanks to congressional reductions in proposed defense spending, "the plain truth is that for the six years of this Administration, Congress actually has appropriated less in total spending than Mr. Reagan has asked us to appropriate."
"The basic disagreement is not over how much to spend. It's where to spend it, what we get for it and who pays the bill, ourselves or our children."
Puts Deficit in Human Terms
Just as Reagan has successfully communicated his ideas over the years by casting them in terms of specific human examples, Wright described the $200-billion federal budget deficit as a problem for grandfathers to confront with one another.
"Mr. President, you and I both have grandchildren. We need to stop sending them our bills," Wright said.
This year, for the first time in his presidency, Reagan faces Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. However, in their response to the State of the Union, the Democratic leaders said that the final two years of the Reagan Administration need not be unproductive.
"A weakened President serves no one. A strong President serves us all," Byrd said. "We can rebound from the Iranian debacle. We can rebuild our foreign policy. We can rethink our military budget. But we must begin by winning back the nation's trust."
But, in fact, the 100th Congress and the President began 1987 on a confrontational course. Much of the energies of the new Congress have gone to organizing investigations into the Iran affair, and the first three important bills to emerge from the session were strongly opposed by the Administration--measures for federal funding of clean water, highways and the homeless.
Points to Bipartisan Backing
"These bills are not 'budget busters,' " Wright argued. " . . . And let me hasten to say that they've had strong bipartisan support. Republicans have rallied with Democrats in a cooperative effort to get these bills passed in record time."
The Speaker reserved special ridicule for the President's surprise budget proposal, unveiled earlier this month, to slash federal anti-drug programs in half, from $200 million to $100 million.
"This is the kind of gap between rhetoric and reality that we just can't tolerate and maintain people's trust in government," Wright said. "Mr. President, we think promises are more important than that. This is one that Congress--Republicans and Democrats alike--are determined to keep."