Having recaptured control of the Senate and, with it, the chairmanship of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrats are now faced with major opportunities - but also with major risks. Democrats are eager to use their new majority status on the committee to effect a major course change in United States foreign policy, veering away from President Reagan's hard-line policies on Central America and steering toward more-stringent arms control measures.
Congressional sources predict that in coming months the Foreign Relations Committee will hold highly publicized oversight hearings to investigate the Reagan administration's arms sales to Iran and allegations of illegal conduct by US officials in aiding Nicaraguan rebel groups.
[The Iran issue has caused divisions within the Reagan administration. But yesterday the White House announced it was united with Secretary of State George Shultz on Iran policy. Story, Page 2.]
But observers warn that heightened partisanship within the committee could undermine the panel's authority. Outgoing chairman Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana is widely credited with restoring the committee to a position of influence in US foreign policy after what some observers view as a period of decline in the panel's prestige.
Analysts also caution that by charting too liberal a course, the committee could undermine Democratic prospects for recapturing the White House in 1988.
``To the extent [committee Democrats] become successful in defining the foreign policy agenda for the party as a whole, there may be electoral risks for the party going into 1988,'' says Michael Malbin, a government professor at the University of Maryland.
``If Republicans can brand the Democrats as returning to the post-Vietnam period when they were unwilling to project American power anywhere, then the position of the Democratic Party could be weakened,'' Professor Malbin says.
The loss of Senator Lugar's leadership is expected to be keenly felt by the Reagan administration. More than once, the soft-spoken Indianan has used his parliamentary skills and talents as a reconciler to save the White House from embarrassing legislative defeats.
Mr. Lugar's all-but-certain successor, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, will bring a different agenda and a different operating style to the job.
Committee aides say the leadership change will be felt most in the area of arms control policy. Mr. Pell, who last year rounded up 20 cosponsors for a test ban resolution, is likely to prod the Reagan administration to accept limits on nuclear-weapons tests, including ratification of two long-pending treaties limiting most underground tests. Under Pell, the committee is also likely to press the administration to extend US compliance with the unratified SALT II Treaty.
Experts also predict diminished support for President Reagan's contra aid program - which was the object of unanimous opposition by committee Democrats last session - and for military aid programs including a six-year, $4 billion aid package for Pakistan due to be submitted for congressional approval next year.
As chairman, Senator Pell is likely to be more permissive than Lugar, allowing strong subcommittee chairmen - possibly including prominent liberals like Alan Cranston of California, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, and John Kerry of Massachusetts - plenty of running room to put pressure on the Reagan administration on controversial issues like contra aid.
In particular, that should mean a green light for Senator Kerry, who has been seeking subpoena powers from the committee to investigate allegations of drug dealing by contra leaders and possible violations of a US ban on military aid to the contras by Reagan officials.
Committee Democrats insist their new majority is not necessarily a formula for stalemate with the administration.
``If the administration recognizes the results of the election, then they will find Pell by nature someone they can work with,'' one Senate source says.
Democrats also deny plans to repeal the Reagan foreign policy agenda.
``The goal will not be to eliminate [the Stratetic Defense Initiative] but to keep it within the [anti-ballistic missile] treaty; not to cut funding for the contras but to rethink our commitment; not to push for a comprehensive test ban but to set the stage for one,'' another Senate aide said.
But unless Pell can play Lugar's rule as broker in forging consensus on controversial issues, the next two years could be a period of increased partisanship that could put the committee out of step with the rest of the Senate.
One casualty could be the committee's principal item of business each year, foreign-aid legislation. Partly because of disagreements over the right mix between military and economic aid, 1985 was the first year since 1981 in which the committee succeeded in enacting a foreign-aid authorization bill.
Congressional sources warn that partisan divisions in the Foreign Relations Committee could once again send the foreign-aid process back to the Appropriations Committee.
Observers also warn of the risks of ending the good working relations between the committee and the White House that helped steer the Reagan administration toward the center on issues like South Africa and the Philippines.
``Would the President have been able to shift course on the Philippines as smoothly and as well as he did if he had been faced with repeated television hearings backing him into a corner?'' asks Michael Malbin.