WASHINGTON — Even as President Reagan and Congress have been battling long and hard over nominees to the Supreme Court, relations between the two branches of government have undergone a largely unnoticed thaw in recent weeks.
After many months of confrontation and stalemate, the White House and congressional leaders appear to be moving toward compromise on a variety of other issues, including deficit reduction, arms control and Contra aid. It was the first concerted move toward accommodation since Democrats took total control of Congress earlier this year.
'No Longer a Choice'
"I think we're finally seeing the reality of the need to work together," said Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who serves in the Senate GOP leadership. "No longer is it a matter of choice. The Democrats are in control of the House and Senate, and you have to compromise in order to get anything done."
Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) added: "There is the perception around here that the President is backpedaling on many fronts."
Reagan's choice of Anthony M. Kennedy to fill the Supreme Court vacancy is in keeping with this new spirit of cooperation. Kennedy is seen in the Senate, which must confirm him, as far less provocative than Reagan's previous two unsuccessful selections.
"The experience of the last several months has made all of us a bit wiser," Reagan said on Wednesday when he named Kennedy.
Liberals and moderates on Capitol Hill are overjoyed by the trend. Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), a liberal, hailed it as the most encouraging development of recent years.
But conservatives are furious. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a loyal Reaganite, condemned it as the result of "a systematic war on Reagan's values by the Washington Establishment."
And Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who has been particularly critical of the way the White House has handled the Supreme Court nominations, asserted that the President has abandoned his conservative principles in the name of smoothing relations with Congress.
"There is a greater propensity to compromise principle at the White House now than there has been in many years," Hatch said.
Feeling of Hopelessness
It was only a few weeks ago that Reagan and the Congress appeared to be hopelessly deadlocked on virtually every major issue. When the Senate voted 58 to 42 against the Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork on Oct. 23 after a bitter lobbying drive on both sides, it was viewed as one of Reagan's worst defeats in Congress and a measure of the tremendous animosity that had built up between the executive and legislative branches.
The reversal came, according to Cochran, when leaders in both Congress and the White House realized that if they continued along the same path they would soon bring the government to a standstill.
Without a compromise on arms control, for example, Democrats threatened to let the Defense Department run out of money after mid-December.
Outside pressures helped. In the wake of the Oct. 19 stock market crash, financial markets demanded an agreement on reducing the federal budget deficit, and Reagan abandoned his longstanding refusal to negotiate budget cuts with Congress. After three weeks of talks, Administration officials and congressional leaders declared themselves optimistic Friday that they will soon reach an accord.
Public's Role Seen
Public opinion may have played a role as well. "The American people are getting tired of confrontation and stalemate," Cochran said. "They are telling us to get something done."
White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. receives much of the credit from moderate members of Congress for the Administration's new spirit of accommodation.
"Were it not for Howard Baker, the Administration would be getting much less out of Congress," Cochran said. "Howard Baker is bringing a sense of what's possible into those meetings at the White House."
This is the same Howard Baker who recently received heavy criticism from moderates of both parties for allowing Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III to persuade Reagan to select Douglas H. Ginsburg for the Supreme Court vacancy after Bork's defeat. Ginsburg, named by Reagan Oct. 29 after only a hasty review of his background, withdrew nine days later after admitting he had smoked marijuana.
But when Ginsburg bowed out, Reagan quickly named Kennedy, who was Baker's candidate from the outset, as his new choice for the court vacancy.
Likewise, Reagan's newly nominated defense secretary, Frank C. Carlucci, is being credited with playing a key role in the agreement with Congress on arms control--a role as compromiser that was never played by his more unyielding predecessor, Caspar W. Weinberger.
Whether the Administration's spirit of compromise will continue through the remaining 14 months of Reagan's tenure as President is still a matter of debate. "I hope we will continue to see this next year," Cochran said, "but I'm not optimistic."