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Senate Approves Aid for Contras : $38 Million in Non-Military Help Voted; Tough Test Seen in House

Times Staff Writer

The Senate, in the face of warnings that it is drawing the United States closer to full-scale war with Nicaragua, Thursday approved a White House-backed package of $38 million in humanitarian aid for rebels seeking to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist government.

The proposal, approved on a 55-42 vote, would also eliminate the existing ban on U.S. military aid to the rebels--known as contras, for counterrevolutionaries.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) predicted this would be seen in future years as “our first step onto a slippery slope that will lead to massive involvement of Americans in the war in Nicaragua.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) insisted, however, that the Sandinista government is “the single greatest remaining obstacle” to peace and stability in Central America. He said the package would send “a powerful signal of United States resolve for its allies in the region.”

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House Rejection

The measure, which drew support from 14 Democrats and opposition from 10 Republicans in the Republican-dominated Senate, was passed by a slightly wider margin than was a similar proposal in April. The House, in a series of votes this spring, rejected any resumption of aid.

Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) voted for the package Thursday, while Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) voted against it.

The vote staked out the Senate’s ground for a confrontation with the Democratic-controlled House, which is expected to vote Tuesday on alternatives for providing humanitarian aid to the contras.

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Although several proposals that could reverse Thursday’s vote are scheduled for Senate consideration today, leading supporters expressed optimism that they will prevail.

“By providing (humanitarian) aid, we are affirming our support for freedom and democracy in Central America,” said Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who had been a key player in the negotiations between the White House and the Senate that produced the proposal.

However, opponents argued that even though the aid is earmarked for humanitarian purposes--food, clothing, medicine and the like--it would free for military uses the other funds the contras are receiving.

“Make no mistake about this vote,” Kennedy declared. “A vote for this humanitarian assistance will put . . . guns and bullets in the hands of the contras just as surely as if we were to deliver those weapons directly.”

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Definition of Aid

Others objected to what they said was an overly broad definition of humanitarian aid, which supporters conceded could include such non-lethal military equipment as radar in some circumstances.

“I don’t think we would set the definition in concrete,” said Nunn, who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “We’re going to have to have some precise understanding on those things behind closed doors.”

The vote was cast against a background of heightened tensions between Nicaragua and its neighbors. In recent weeks, Honduras and Costa Rica both have charged that Nicaraguan troops have entered their territory.

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Whether and how to aid the rebels are issues that in the past few years have forged deepening divisions between President Reagan and Congress. The Administration last year failed in its efforts to obtain $14 million in fiscal 1985 military aid for the contras, but it agreed last month, in the face of overwhelming opposition in Congress, to use the funds only for humanitarian purposes.

Contadora Efforts

It also agreed to resume U.S. negotiations with the Sandinistas and to support the efforts of the four Latin American nations known as the Contadora group--Mexico, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela--that are trying to negotiate a regional peace settlement.

The package approved by the Senate includes $14 million in fiscal 1985 funds plus $24 million for fiscal 1986, which begins Oct. 1. Nunn originally had argued for only $14 million in funding for next year, whereas the Reagan Administration had asked for $28 million.

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Apparently some Democrats supported the Administration-backed proposal because of anger over a recent trip by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to Moscow to seek aid.

However, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) dismissed the idea that anyone should have been surprised by Ortega’s move: “Where did my colleagues think he was going to go? Disney World? He’s a Marxist.”

However, opponents of aid, obviously sensitive to a growing backlash of U.S. public opinion against the Nicaraguan government, insisted that their votes did not imply support for the Sandinistas’ policies.

Approval of the package came after the Senate rejected a variety of Democratic proposals that would have placed tighter restrictions on both the amount of aid that would be provided and the conditions under which it would be sent to Central America. Almost all failed by wide margins.

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