Secretary of State George P. Shultz attacked congressional Democrats on Thursday for going to Nicaragua as "self-appointed emissaries to the Communist regime" and suggested that they may have broken the law. But he later said he had not meant to criticize anyone personally.
Shultz charged at a meeting of the American Bar Assn. that "a climate of bitter partisanship" in Congress is making it difficult for the Reagan Administration to carry out its foreign policy, and he called on Democrats to support the Administration's request for aid to rebels fighting Nicaragua's leftist regime.
"We cannot conduct a successful policy when (congressmen) take trips or write 'Dear Comandante' letters with the aim of negotiating" with the Nicaraguan government, Shultz said. ". . . Bipartisanship must include the recognition that we have only one President at a time.
"It's presumably not lawful for citizens to appoint themselves as negotiators for the United States," Shultz said. He added that he believes that congressmen who tried to bargain with Nicaragua should be censured rather than prosecuted.
Shultz was referring to Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), who met in Managua with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega last month, as well as to 10 House Democrats who wrote to Ortega last year. Both groups asked Ortega to liberalize his regime and suggested that Congress would find it easier to reject the President's aid requests for anti-Sandinista rebels if he did.
Shultz's targets reacted furiously. Harkin denounced the charges as "international McCarthyism" and said: "The Democrats have gone the extra mile to find a bipartisan approach to the problems of Central America. It is President Reagan who refuses to meet us even half way."
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante Fascell (D-Fla.), a moderate Democrat, dismissed Shultz's charges as "the usual myths and complaints." If President Reagan wants cooperation from Congress, Fascell said, he "has to extend both arms and say, 'I really want a bipartisan foreign policy.' "
Later in the day, Shultz spoke privately with House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.)--a signer of the "Dear Comandante" letter--and backed down.
"I do want to say that any phrase that might be interpreted as criticism of one of these gentlemen or their associates is not a proper interpretation, because I think they have conducted themselves in the spirit of a bipartisan foreign policy," Shultz said, with Wright at his side.
The 1799 Logan Act prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments without the approval of the President. But no one has ever been convicted of violating the act, and it has never been invoked against a member of Congress. Shultz's targets argued that their actions fell far short of negotiation.
"We did not negotiate," Kerry said. "Nor has any senator I know of, nor any congressman . . . nor is it appropriate to negotiate with the head of a foreign state."
In his speech, Shultz said he sees signs of a new bipartisan consensus "on the main elements of our foreign policy"--U.S.-Soviet relations, nuclear arms control, the Middle East and southern Africa. But on the issue of Central America, he said, "political partisanship . . . has burdened our task."
"We seem to have general and growing agreement that the Nicaraguan Communist regime poses a threat to the security of the region," he said. " . . . The dispute in this country is about some of the tactics of addressing the problem."
He called on Congress to approve the President's pending requests for a total of $42 million in aid for the anti-Sandinista rebels, known as contras , and warned that rejecting it will "hasten the day . . . when we will be faced with an agonizing choice about the use of American combat troops."