Congress seems to be gaining the upper hand in its wrestling match with the administration over aid to El Salvador. Significant concessions may be on the way from the White House.
In the view of Rep. Clarence D. Long, the key subcommittee chairman involved in the battle over the ''reprogramming'' of military aid for El Salvador, this may be one of those rare instances where the Congress actually ends up helping to shape foreign policy. A yes or no from the Maryland Democrat could go far to make or break the administration's El Salvador policy at this point.
''Without this money, there is no policy,'' said an aide to Representative Long, speaking of the $60 million President Reagan proposes to take from existing appropriations for other nations in order to provide additional military aid to El Salvador. ''Reprogramming'' is the term used for such shifting of already appropriated funds.
In Long, the administration faces a tough, demanding veteran of legislative wars. On the one hand, the congressman wants to give the administration the benefit of the doubt.But on the other hand, he feels the administration's Salvador policy is leading nowhere and would like to see important changes. He now thinks he may be getting them.
The craggy Long wants to see the confirmation of such changes in writing, however. He says that in an appearance before his subcommittee on March 16, Secretary of State George Shultz stated goals and principles which conformed more closely to his own ideas and those of some of his colleagues. But Long wants to see more detail, and Mr. Shultz has promised to provide it in a memo. Shultz's words welcomed by Long
At the subcommittee hearing, Shultz seemed to place more emphasis on political and economic answers to El Salvador's problems, and that was music to Long's ears. The congressman has laid down five conditions that he believes should be met before Congress approves more aid to El Salvador:
1. A broadening of the Salvadorean political process to bring in groups now in exile, including Social and Christian Democrats left out of the last election.
2. Dramatic improvements in human rights, including the conviction and punishment of offenders by both courts martial and civilian courts.
3. A strengthening of the judicial system.
4. The development of realistic, well-thought-out economic and military plans.
5. US plans and pressures designed to produce a military strategy that would turn the fight against the guerrillas from defensive holding actions to offensive actions.
Speaking of Shultz's appearance before his appropriations subcommittee, Long said that Shultz had agreed to provide within a few days a memorandum specifying ''exactly what they're going to do.'' Long intends to submit that memo to members of his subcommittee, talk it over with them, and perhaps have the subcommittee ''help to rewrite'' the memo.
According to Long, if a vote were taken today, the 14-member subcommittee might vote against the reprogramming of military aid for El Salvador. The subcommittee consists of nine Democrats and five Republicans. By tradition, the appropriations subcommittees in the Senate and House have to give their approval before aid can be reprogrammed. Reagan request snagged in Senate
The Reagan reprogramming request for $60 million is already in deep trouble in the Senate. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D) of Hawaii, a key member of the Senate subcommittee who has often supported the administration in such matters, has raised objections to the aid request.
''I could approve the reprogramming myself, but it's my practice to consult with the subcommittee members, not just to get their approval but to get their input,'' said Congressman Long in the interview.
Like Senator Inouye, Long sees Vietnam parallels in President Reagan's aid request. In a statement made at his March 17 hearing, Long said: ''Regardless of what our decision is on this specific reprogramming, under no circumstances or conditions will this House of Representatives allow the country to be drawn bit by bit into another Vietnam.''
Long was the author of the first successful House amendment to stop US combat activity in Southeast Asia, following the bombing of Cambodia. He is the only active member of Congress to have a son who served in combat in Vietnam. His son returned with a purple heart.