Time and votes at stake in Kissinger pick
President Reagan's use of bipartisan commissions is widely viewed in Washington as among the most effective tactics he has used. But bipartisan commission No. 3, on Central America, may make the task of the earlier two - which dealt with social security and US strategic forces - look like child's play.
President Reagan announced Monday that he was appointing former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger to head a new special commission on the problems of Central America. The President is expected to name other members to the bipartisan panel shortly.
The main target of such commissions is the Congress, and the first two commissions went a long way toward building a bipartisan consensus there on difficult major issues. President Reagan's hope apparently is that by appointing a new commission to deal with Central America, he will not only obtain proposals for long-range solutions to the region's underlying problems, but he will also buy time and votes for his short-range aid proposals for Central America.
But events are moving so swiftly in both Central America and in the Congress that it is unclear whether the President's new panel will be able to catch up in time and stay ahead. Dr. Kissinger's appointment comes at a critical time:
* The Congress is trying to decide this week whether to cut off funds to CIA-backed guerrillas fighting against the Sandinista-led regime in Nicaragua.
* The State Department said recently that military supplies reaching Nicaragua from East-bloc nations had been arriving at a rate higher than that of last year. In a speech on Central America to the International Longshoremen's Association in Hollywood, Fla., on Monday, President Reagan said, without elaboration, that ''more Cuban soldiers'' have arrived in Nicaragua.
* In Honduras, guerrilla leaders have announced that they plan to strike deeper inside Nicaragua. One of the directors of the CIA-supported Nicaraguan Democratic Forces said the aim was to start urban insurrections in Nicaragua and have some offensive actions coincide with the fourth anniversary on Tuesday of the Sandinistas' coming to power.
* Apparently because of fears that the fighting could spread and produce a war between Nicaragua and Honduras, four Latin American presidents hastily convened a meeting in Cancun, Mexico, on Sunday. The presidents of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama - the so-called Contadora group - repeated their earlier calls for dialogue to resolve conflicts and urged a halt to militarization of the region as well as an end to foreign intervention.
In his Florida speech, President Reagan said the new Kissinger-led commission will make recommendations to him later this year on what the United States must do to deal with the underlying problems in the region.
The commission idea has been under discussion for some time now in the Congress. Sens. Charles McC. Mathias Jr., a Republican from Maryland, and Henry M. Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, two men of decidedly different approaches to many foreign policy issues, introduced a resolution calling for such a commission a few weeks ago. It has already gathered more than 30 cosponsors.
But congressmen were withholding comment on Kissinger's appointment until they could see who other members of the commission would be. In private comments , some Democratic as well as Republican liberals were skeptical about the appointment, because the former secretary of state is, in their view, a controversial figure who might polarize opinions rather than bring them closer together.
But within President Reagan's ideological spectrum, a move toward Kissinger is a move away from the political right and toward the center. In earlier times, Reagan had criticized Kissinger's role in the Panama Canal negotiations, arguing that he had engineered a ''giveaway.'' He had also criticized SALT negotiations which Kissinger engaged in as leading to flawed strategic arms agreements. But once Reagan was elected, his administration was quick to call on Kissinger for advice concerning the Middle East and later concerning plans for deployment of the MX missile.
One administration official said that the Kissinger appointment was a safe one for the President, because he could be sure that any panel headed by Kissinger would not recommend a lessening of US involvement in or aid to Central America. Kissinger has in recent years recommended vigorous action to counter Soviet and Cuban influence worldwide.
''I think it's a move toward building up support in the center of the political spectrum for the continuation and perhaps the intensification of the Reagan approach to Central America,'' said I.M. Destler, a scholar who has written frequently on executive-congressional relations.
An administration official added that it was hoped that the new commission will ''offer a way out'' for congressmen who are unsure which is the right course in Central America.
Some of those sponsoring the commission idea say the use of the term Marshall Plan to describe it was meant to capture the nation's imagination and show that the commission's recommendation will be for a long-term commitment. But few experts believe that Central America could absorb aid on the original Marshall plan scale, or that the US public would support such a massive commitment of resources.