House Approves Funds for Contras : Aid Bill Passes Easily in Major Reagan Victory
In a dramatic reversal, the Democratic-controlled House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to give $27 million in aid to rebel forces in Nicaragua, ending nearly two years of consistent opposition to President Reagan’s policy in Central America.
Less than a week after the Senate approved a $38-million aid package, the bipartisan House vote of 248 to 184 in favor of a measure by Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) assures that the contras, as the rebels are known, will soon get their first financial support from the U.S. government in nearly a year.
The two versions still must be reconciled by a House-Senate conference committee.
Boland Amendment Loses
It was a sweeping victory for the President: Not only did the House approve the aid proposal, but it also voted 232 to 196 against an amendment by Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.)--approved four times in the last two years--that bans the use of U.S. funds for military efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
The aid package, to be distributed in three installments between now and March 30, is earmarked as “humanitarian” and designated for food, clothing and medical supplies for the contras. However, Democratic critics of the measure have characterized it as a “Trojan horse” that would actually permit renewed military aid.
As Eden Pastora, the former Sandinista hero turned Nicaraguan rebel leader, watched from the House gallery, the members also defeated by a vote of 259 to 172 an amendment by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) that would have delayed the aid decision for six months. And it rejected, 254 to 174, a Democratic alternative by Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) that would have provided $14 million in aid to Nicaraguan refugees rather than the contras.
The aid package was attached to a supplemental appropriations bill, providing $13.5 billion for a variety of programs during the current fiscal year, that was approved by a vote of 271 to 156. The contras last received U.S. aid in June, 1984, when Congress’ appropriation for fiscal 1984 ran out.
Even before it was learned in early 1984 that the CIA had arranged for the mining of a Nicaraguan harbor without consulting Congress, the House had been a hotbed of opposition to Reagan’s policy in Nicaragua and had already approved the Boland amendment for the first time.
Even as recently as late April, the chamber voted against renewing aid to the contras. Immediately after that vote, however, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega visited Moscow and several Communist Bloc countries, swinging many conservative and moderate House Democrats to the Republican side. As a result, 73 Democrats and 175 Republicans voted to approve the $27-million aid package.
One of the Democrats who switched sides after the Ortega trip, Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), said he had been assured personally by representatives of Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime last April that there would be a cease-fire in the region if the House voted against aid for the contras. The Nicaraguans broke that promise and cannot be trusted now, he added.
‘Ortega Is a Swine’
“Daniel Ortega is a swine,” declared Rep. Tommy F. Robinson (D-Ark.), another recent convert to the contras’ cause. He said he had been assured by the Democratic leadership last April that Ortega “was going to do right, and he didn’t do right.”
House Democratic leaders, who continued to oppose the aid package despite numerous defections, still were not conceding permanent defeat. “We lost, but we will revisit this issue in the future,” Boland asserted.
Nicaragua’s embassy in Washington condemned the vote in a statement as “an obstacle to peace,” charging: “Any assistance to the contras whether it is called humanitarian or otherwise, is a violation of international law.”
That was the position Democrats opposing Reagan’s policy took throughout the debate, portraying the amendment as a “declaration of war” on Nicaragua that violates international law and the sovereignty of that country.
“If we do this, we will hurt Nicaragua--but more importantly, we will hurt ourselves,” said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.). “Do we really want to put the U.S. in opposition to international law? Do we really want to put the U.S. in opposition to the principles of national sovereignty?”
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) asserted that Reagan will not be satisfied until he has overthrown the Sandinista government with the help of U.S. Marines. He said the President pictures himself “leading a contingent down Broadway . . . like a kind of grade B motion picture actor, coming home the conquering hero.”
O’Neill’s outburst angered White House officials, who said privately that the Speaker had overstepped the bounds of propriety. “You know, that’s really sad,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes said.
The aid package passed by the House stipulates that neither the CIA nor the Defense Department should be responsible for distributing the money, but it does not specify what agency the funds would be directed through. Although the Senate-passed measure also specifies humanitarian aid, it would allow the money to be distributed by the CIA.
Michel, who had spent more than a month carefully lining up bipartisan support for his plan, argued that it satisfied the objections many Democrats had raised against military aid to the contras distributed by the CIA. Critics of Michel’s proposal noted that by allowing the two-year-old Boland restrictions on military aid to expire at the end of the current fiscal year Oct. 1, it also frees the CIA to covertly funnel other funds to the contras for military purposes.
‘A Trojan Horse’
“This program is nothing but a Trojan horse that will allow resumption of military aid,” Obey said.
Democrats also argued that the designation “humanitarian aid” is merely a subterfuge because the money would free the contras to spend other funds on weapons.
Although Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) said he had assurances from the White House that the CIA would not be permitted to spend any funds for military purposes without specific congressional approval, Boland vowed to revive his amendment later this summer, when the House acts on a bill funding all government intelligence agencies.