WASHINGTON — Despite growing fears in Congress that the United States is heading into war with Iran, Democrats as well as Republicans praised President Reagan on Monday for retaliating against Iran for its attack on a U.S.-registered tanker.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) described the U.S. assault on an oil platform being used by the Iranian military in the Persian Gulf as "minimal and appropriate"--two words that were repeated frequently throughout the day by other members of Congress.
The only vocal congressional critic of the attack was the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who called it "probably too mild." Aspin said Reagan should have struck "a more significant target and we should have done it in association with other countries."
Some Still Skeptical
At the same time, Democrats made it clear that they are still skeptical about Reagan's decision last July to provide U.S. Navy escorts to 11 Kuwaiti tankers flying the U.S. flag and about where that policy might be leading.
"I am also concerned that we may be backing into war with Iran," Byrd said. "We do not want to drive Iran into the arms of the Soviets."
Echoing Byrd's view, Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) declared: "It is another escalation of hostilities and will not be the last. The Administration may consider the matter closed, but Iran will not. As long as we continue our present policy, we should be prepared for more escalation of hostilities."
Nevertheless, Democrats appeared to be divided over whether Reagan should comply with the 1973 War Powers Resolution. Byrd said the resolution applies in this situation, but House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) expressed no opinion.
"I'm not going to get into a quarrel about that today," Wright said. He indicated that he is trying to avoid a battle between Reagan and Congress that would send the wrong signal to Iran. "I'm not going to be the one who gives to the world a demonstration of a country divided by partisan politics," he said.
Under the War Powers Resolution, which Reagan contends is unconstitutional, the President must report to Congress within 48 hours after U.S. troops face "imminent hostilities." The troops then must be withdrawn within 90 days unless Congress votes otherwise.
While Reagan has promised to give Congress a written report within 48 hours, he refuses to acknowledge that he is acting under the terms of the resolution.
"This is a textbook case of the situation in which the War Powers act should be invoked," Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio.) said. "How anyone can say that hostilities are not imminent, when we are planning them and executing them ourselves, defies rationality. An American President doesn't have the right to pick and choose the laws he will obey."
'The Most Wimpish'
But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) branded members of Congress calling for imposition of the War Powers Resolution as "those who are the most wimpish about American foreign policy."
Wright made it clear that the House does not intend to act to force Reagan to obey the War Powers Resolution unless the Senate acts first. The Senate, unable to muster sufficient votes to invoke the resolution, is scheduled to vote today on a vague imitation of the War Powers Resolution that would preserve Congress' option to vote again next January on the question of whether to continue registering Kuwaiti tankers in the United States.
A lone voice in the House in favor of invoking the resolution was that of Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). Referring to the Navy's radio warning to the Iranians on the oil platform before the shelling began, he said: "The Administration gave the Iranians 20 minutes' notice, but they still haven't given Congress notice. Hasn't the Administration learned anything from the Iran- contra adventure?"
House Majority Leader Thomas J. Foley (D-Wash.), one of several congressional leaders who were briefed by Reagan on Sunday night, said the President acknowledged that he is prepared to retaliate again if Iran continues to strike U.S. targets.
"There was an assumption (on Reagan's part) that this would lead to further acts by the Iranians," he said. "And there was a statement that we will respond."
Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, predicted that Congress would continue to support the President if he is forced to retaliate again.
"There's no question that we are the targets now," Fascell said. "We're going to have to defend ourselves. It's no longer a question of imminent hostilities. There's a war over there and we're caught up in the middle of it."
Likewise, Wright said he will support the President if he decides to retaliate for another Iranian attack by hitting Iranian Silkworm missile sites in the Persian Gulf. Last Friday's Iranian attack on the reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Sea Isle City was carried out from one of those sites.
Seeks Allies' Support
But Aspin said Iran will continue to pressure the U.S. forces until other countries support the Persian Gulf operation.
"Iran must see that it is the world, not just Ronald Reagan, that refuses to allow it to export its revolution by force," he said.
As might be expected, Republicans were even more supportive than Democrats of Reagan's action. They were silent on the issue of the War Powers Resolution.
"The ayatollah asked for this, and he got it," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said. "We've sent the message again. And if (the Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini ignores it again, he'll get more of the same. It's that simple."