Republican Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., clashing sharply with Democratic Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., Wednesday endorsed a House bill's death penalty provision for drug dealers but questioned whether the federal government should use military forces to seek and arrest drug smugglers.
Commenting on a tough anti-drug bill that has stirred widespread controversy since the Democratic-controlled House passed it last week, the national chairmen stressed that illegal drugs have mushroomed into a major political issue that candidates of both parties must debate before the Nov. 4 elections.
But the chairmen, in a spirited exchange during a breakfast session with reporters and editors of The Times' Washington Bureau, found little on which to agree in their approach to the problem. And they clashed over several other issues, including the potential impact of a presidential candidacy by television evangelist Pat Robertson.
Ministers in Politics
Kirk contended that a campaign by the evangelist would polarize the Republican Party. "Absolutely not," retorted Fahrenkopf, although he conceded that most Americans are "deeply concerned" about the involvement of ministers in partisan politics.
On the drug issue, Fahrenkopf said that, although he has no questions about a death penalty provision "other than the way it's applied," an amendment to the bill providing for the use of the military is "open to debate" and another amendment providing for easing restrictions on the use of illegally seized evidence is open to constitutional questions.
Kirk said the United States should not hesitate to use the military and that, "clearly, there's an invasion of America by drugs from foreign countries, and I think, given the sickness and destruction of society at various levels, youth on up, that we ought to do everything we can from that point of view."
But he said the death penalty is "too much" for drug dealers and could hinder law enforcement because jurors might be unwilling to indict dealers if the law provided death as punishment.
House Votes Amendment
The House, by a 296-112 vote, approved an amendment that in some cases would provide for capital punishment for those convicted of involvement in "a continuing criminal enterprise," such as drug smuggling. An amendment that would require stationing military troops along the border to pursue and arrest drug smugglers was approved by a 237-177 vote.
The military amendment has stirred opposition by both civil libertarians, who argue that it would violate longstanding law barring the military from civilian law enforcement, and Defense Department officials, who say it would tie up armed forces and reduce the military's combat readiness.
"We've got thousands of miles of border along the Southern perimeter of our country, and whether or not we're going to have a soldier stationed every quarter-mile and whether that's an efficient use of the military and a proper use of the military is something that's open for debate," Fahrenkopf said.
GOP Control of Senate
Looking ahead to the November elections, Fahrenkopf predicted that, with campaign help from President Reagan, the GOP will retain control of the Senate, where it now has a 53-47 margin. In addition, he forecast that Republicans will make gains in the governors' races and not lose more than 15 seats in the House, where Democrats have a 252-183 margin.
Kirk agreed that Republicans would gain in the races for governor (Democrats now have a 34-16 advantage) and would suffer a net loss of no more than 15 House seats. But he predicted that Democrats, who hold only 12 of the 34 Senate seats being contested, will regain control of the Senate.
Both chairmen said a presidential campaign by Robertson could make religion a major issue in the 1988 presidential campaign.
So far, Fahrenkopf said, he has seen nothing to endanger the principle of separation of church and state. But, he added, "the concern that most Americans have concerning members of the cloth being involved in partisan politics, whether it's a Pat Robertson on our side or a Rev. Jesse Jackson on the Democratic side, is to make sure that that fine line of separation of church and state isn't in any way disturbed."
Some Republicans, including pollster Robert Teeter, have warned that right-wing evangelists could split the party. But Fahrenkopf said that, as of today, he sees no such danger from a Robertson candidacy. However, he suggested that this could change "six months from now or a year from now, depending upon what happens."