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."
Disgruntled conservatives, meanwhile, fear that the Reagan Administration has permanently shifted its approach to governing. "It appears that you are going to see a much quieter, less ideological presidency in the next year than we have seen over the past seven years," Quayle said.
Congress shares some of the responsibility for the newly conciliatory atmosphere in Washington. Some members said the Democratic leaders want to settle their differences with the Administration in time to allow Congress to adjourn before Christmas.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) put it this way: "Every now and then, we do what's best for the country. Of course, we also had our eye on adjourning by Christmas."
Perhaps the most stunning compromise to date involved the question of Contra aid, the single most divisive issue before Congress during the Reagan era. The President had pledged that he would never give up helping the Nicaraguan rebels and, in fact, the Iran-Contra scandal proved that his Administration even refused to halt aid in 1985 and 1986, when it was banned by Congress.
Earlier this year, Reagan vowed to request $270 million for the Contras in fiscal 1988, which began Oct. 1. A showdown appeared certain because a majority of members of Congress clearly opposed any Contra aid in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair.
Peace Efforts Cited
The movement toward compromise began slowly last August, when Reagan agreed to support a peace plan for Central America in cooperation with House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.). At the time, it was assumed in Washington that the Sandinista government would reject the peace initiative, giving Reagan a new reason to demand renewed Contra aid from Congress.
But Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega surprised the Reagan Administration by accepting a similar peace plan put forth by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez. Aides said that Wright knew in advance that Ortega would accept the plan, which calls for no further U.S. aid to the Contras.
At first, the Administration continued to insist that the Contras needed the $270 million, even though the aid would have undercut the peace agreement. But gradually that demand gave way and Administration officials are now indicating that they will not ask for renewed military assistance to the Contras until early next year at the soonest.
Almost as surprising was the compromise on arms-control issues, which Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) had expected to be "the Christmas Eve showstopper"--the last issue dividing Reagan and the Democrats as Congress sought to clear the way for adjournment in December.
Warnings on 'Star Wars'
Reagan had vowed to veto any Pentagon money bill that restricted his right to proceed with testing of his Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as "Star Wars." Democratic leaders had vowed to allow the military to go unfunded unless Reagan accepted legislation stating that the President could not proceed with "Star Wars" testing, which violates the traditional interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, without an explicit vote of Congress.
Meeting privately, Nunn and Carlucci are credited with working out a deal whereby the Administration agrees that it will take no steps toward "Star Wars" testing in fiscal 1988.
Both sides came away victorious. The Democrats claim they forced the Administration to back down; the Administration argues that it gave up nothing since it has no plans to proceed with "Star Wars" testing until fiscal 1989.
It is still uncertain whether Reagan and Congress will reach a compromise on deficit reduction, even though both sides seem confident that a plan can be worked out before the deadline next Friday. Still dividing negotiators for the two sides is the task of deciding how to come up with an additional $2 billion in cuts in entitlement programs.
Seen as Breakthrough
Nevertheless, it was seen as a big breakthrough in the nation's fiscal stalemate when Reagan, responding to the stock market crash, announced that he was willing to discuss all options for reducing the deficit--including some new taxes that were being proposed by Congress.
None of these agreements is permanent, however. All three issues--Contra aid, arms control and deficit reduction--were resolved in large part because both sides agreed to postpone some important decisions until next year.