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White House Hedging on Gorbachev's Congress Talk

November 20, 1987|PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The White House, pressured by angry House Republicans not to invite Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to address a joint meeting of Congress next month, said Thursday that the idea is merely one of several options still under discussion.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater suggested that Gorbachev may be asked instead to confer only with congressional leaders during the Dec. 7-10 summit with President Reagan in Washington.

An aide to House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said it appears that the Administration is retreating from "a firestorm among (House) Republicans," whose leader, Rep. Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), declared that inviting Gorbachev to a joint meeting would be "a terrible mistake."

The aide, Wilson Morris, said that Wright and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) had been asked Tuesday by White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and Secretary of State George P. Shultz to invite Gorbachev to speak to the full House and Senate on Dec. 9 at 10 a.m.

Wright and Byrd were willing to go along but now will hold up the invitation until they hear further from the White House, Morris said.

"We agreed to host the party, but some of the potential guests are a bit unruly at the moment," he said. "Obviously, the Administration and Republicans have to work out something. It's their battle."

In addition, it was learned that several liberal Democratic congressmen highly critical of Soviet restrictions on emigration of Jews also are privately furious about the prospect of Gorbachev addressing Congress.

Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) said through a spokesman that it was "entirely inappropriate for the President to arrange for Gorbachev to address a joint meeting because this is a great honor that should not be bestowed lightly and, in particular, not upon the leader of a country with one of the worst human rights records in the history of the world."

If the invitation is extended, Gorbachev would be the first leader of a Communist nation ever asked to speak to a joint meeting of Congress, which is less formal than a joint session, where only the President gives an address.

Vehement Protests

After Wright had confirmed reports of the Administration request, House Republicans led by Californian Robert K. Dornan (Garden Grove) Robert S. Walker (Pa.) began protesting vehemently in a party caucus, TV interviews and a letter to Reagan signed by 74 colleagues.

"To permit the dictator of an oppressive tyranny to appear before Congress would tarnish forever the rare honor of addressing the highest representative body of the American people," the letter read.

Dornan, appearing on "ABC News Capital to Capital" on Wednesday night, told a Soviet official in a heated exchange that Gorbachev could "speak anywhere he wants but not in our Congress. That's the citadel of liberty, and no dictators have ever spoken there."

He and other Republicans vowed to force a House vote on issuing an invitation and threatened to walk out if the Soviet leader appeared.

Statement From Michel

Michel, after meeting with Reagan to report on the uproar, issued a statement objecting to an invitation.

"The purpose of this (summit) visit is to finalize details of a very important arms agreement," Michel said. "There is no logical reason to obscure the purpose of the visit or give it an inappropriate symbolic value" by having a joint meeting.

Michel said he would welcome a meeting between Gorbachev and congressional leaders, adding that such meetings have been fruitful in the past.

An aide to Dornan said it was his understanding that the Soviet Embassy in Washington had asked that Gorbachev be invited to a joint meeting and that Reagan agreed after Administration officials initially rejected the idea.

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