Reagan Under Fire for Partisan Line on Contras

Times Staff Writers

Key Republicans as well as many Democrats on Thursday condemned the hard-line, highly partisan approach that President Reagan has taken toward Democratic opposition to his request for $100 million in economic and military aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.

Their complaints were raised as three more committees of the Democratic-controlled House voted on Reagan's proposal--two against it and one in favor. Two House panels voted against it Wednesday.

Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a frequent Reagan ally, said the President is hurting his cause by portraying the issue as "a disagreement between the Republicans in white hats and Democrats wrapped in Red banners."

'Simplistic Reasoning'

"There is the argument that this is a matter of patriotism--those who love America will support the President and those who oppose want to abandon San Diego to the Sandinistas," she said. "I find this simplistic reasoning to be highly offensive."

Kassebaum gave a copy of her remarks to a friend of Reagan, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), to give to the President personally.

Likewise, aides said that Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, believes that the partisanship of the debate so far has undermined his efforts to put together a bipartisan compromise in favor of a package that would provide military aid for the first time in two years to the contras fighting the Nicaraguan regime.

"Lugar believes there is a mood in the Congress to fashion legislation to support the contras," a Senate Republican aide said. "The White House is grasping defeat from the jaws of victory."

Even some White House political advisers are known to be dismayed over the Reagan Administration's shrill rhetoric, accusing the opposition of aiding and abetting the Communist cause.

"There's no question the rhetoric is backfiring," one adviser said.

Democrats, meanwhile, were outraged at being portrayed by the White House as Communist sympathizers for their opposition to military aid--a tactic that Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) described as "the moral equivalent of McCarthyism."

"I don't believe we have heard such offensive nonsense from our top political leaders since the 1950s," Barnes said. "As one who is concerned about the President's policy, I suppose I might thank the President and his advisers for these tactics, which I think are doing more to unite the Congress against his policies than anything I as an individual opponent of his program could do."

But Reagan refused to back away from his hard line.

Recalling his experience as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s, when he purged Communists and their sympathizers from the Hollywood union, he suggested that those who oppose aid to the contras are unwittingly aiding the Communist enemies of the United States.

'People Are Deceived'

"It's what the choice comes down to, whether it is knowingly or not," he told a meeting of House Republicans. "And I've had enough experience with Communist subversion back in my former profession to know that a great many people are deceived and not aware that what they're doing is inimical to the United States."

When asked by a reporter whether the controversy "couldn't be an honest disagreement" over Central America policy, Reagan said: "You'd have to be stretching pretty far, because we're going to make the facts so plain."

An added source of congressional dismay was a fiery column written by White House communications chief Patrick J. Buchanan that appeared in the Washington Post on Wednesday, charging that, "with the vote on contra aid, the Democratic Party will reveal whether it stands with Ronald Reagan and the resistance--or Daniel Ortega and the Communists."

Driving Force

Buchanan is regarded as the driving force behind the confrontational approach taken by the President and other top officials, including Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who is normally known for his cautious, conciliatory dealings with Congress.

The battle over aid to the Nicaraguan rebels has brought the staunchly conservative Buchanan to the forefront after a year of near-oblivion on a White House staff headed by Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan and his cadre of political moderates. A White House source said that Regan is allowing Buchanan free rein on the issue because it is of paramount importance to the Republican Party's outspoken right wing.

Shultz told a meeting of four Republican senators--Lugar, Kassebaum, Sen. Daniel J. Evans of Washington and Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland--on Thursday that there is no room for compromise with the White House at this point.

'Tough But Do-Able'

Kassebaum said that she, Evans and Mathias told Shultz they cannot support the proposal in its present form. "If it's an up or down vote, all three of us would vote no," she said.

Assistant House Republican Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), meanwhile, assessed Reagan's chances of winning the House floor vote on March 19 as "tough but do-able."

However, the mood in the House appeared to be going against the President. The Foreign Affairs Committee voted 23 to 18 against the President's plan, and the Appropriations Committee voted it down by voice vote. The more conservative Armed Services Committee is the only House panel that has voted for the President's plan. But many Democrats insisted that the voice vote in that committee was not a sign of long-term support.

Those votes are advisory only in nature and have no binding impact on whether the bill becomes law.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World