WASHINGTON — President Reagan and the Democratic-controlled Congress moved toward confrontation Tuesday over the firm refusal of the White House to formally notify the House and Senate that American forces in the Persian Gulf face imminent hostilities.
The President declared that the attack by U.S. helicopters on an Iranian ship Monday night, which killed at least three crewmen, was "authorized by law," and he placed sole blame for the heightened tensions in the gulf on the government of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"The only one that's contributed any explosive tendency in the Persian Gulf is the Khomeini government of Iran," Reagan said at a morning White House photo session.
But hours later, Sens. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.) and Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) offered an amendment to the 1988 defense spending bill that would require the President to invoke the War Powers Resolution as a result of the attack. The measure would allow Congress to demand withdrawal of U.S. forces from the gulf within 90 days.
Although a similar measure was defeated in the Senate last Friday, there are now indications of growing support for at least some compromise action that would give Congress a greater role in overseeing Persian Gulf policy.
"Danger to our Persian Gulf forces is not a remote possibility--it's an immediate reality," said Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio).
"It is long past time that the President come to Congress with both a rationale for this policy and a request for congressional approval," said Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.).
Late Tuesday, senior White House officials were huddled in an effort to devise a strategy to head off the congressional threat.
The President, asked during the White House photo session whether he would invoke the resolution, replied with a terse "No." And Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger denounced the measure in a television interview as "an unconstitutional invasion of the President's power."
Invoking the act would have the effect of "tying one hand behind your back and telling the Iranians, 'Come on and do your worst because we can't do anything about it,' " Weinberger said.
The attack by two U.S. military helicopters on the Iranian ship, which officials said was laying mines in international waters off the coast of Bahrain, was the first U.S. military action to cause damage or casualties in the two months since the U.S. naval buildup in the gulf.
Congressional critics charged that the action, along with the apparently mistaken Iraqi missile attack on the frigate Stark in the gulf in May, demonstrate that conditions are sufficiently volatile to justify congressional oversight.
The War Powers Resolution, passed in 1973 during the Vietnam War, requires the President to notify Congress any time that U.S. forces are assigned to a mission in which they face "imminent hostilities." After that notification, he is required to end the operation within 90 days unless Congress authorizes the action.
The Administration insists that the resolution applies only to missions that involve impending involvement in warfare. It would not cover the U.S. gulf mission, which is designed only to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers passing through the Iran-Iraq War zone, White House officials contend.
More than 30 U.S. warships have been sent to the gulf region to protect 11 Kuwaiti tankers that were re-registered as U.S. ships and fly the U.S. flag. Kuwait, which has supported Iraq in the seven-year-old Iran-Iraq war, sought the assistance in the wake of Iranian attacks on its oil vessels plying the gulf.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Tuesday that the Administration will report on the gulf operation to the House and Senate, and will "keep them up to date on every aspect of this."
But, he said, "we don't feel there's any change in our policy with regard to the War Powers Resolution."
The attack on the Iranian vessel, which officials said was spotted by the U.S. helicopter crews while laying mines, "was a defensive act on the part of the United States forces, and therefore we don't feel that there needs to be any change," Fitzwater said.
Administration officials said that the only result will be strengthening U.S. resolve to force Iran to accept a cease-fire ordered by the U.N. Security Council.
"The lesson for Iran is that they cannot lay mines with impunity and they cannot engage in this activity without having it brought to the attention of the world. . . , " Fitzwater said.
However, Weicker, disclosing plans for his congressional amendment, declared: "At what point does it become a hostility? How many numbers of personnel have to be killed before it becomes a hostility? Last time, it was 240 Marines killed in Lebanon. What will be the numbers this time?"
His measure is scheduled to come up for a vote today in the Senate, but Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) indicated that he probably will try to replace it with a less sweeping measure.