On the eve of a showdown House vote on the Administration's request for $100 million in military and humanitarian aid for the Nicaraguan rebels, President Reagan won a key bloc of votes on Wednesday by pledging to withhold offensive weapons for 90 days while he seeks a diplomatic settlement with the Sandinista government.
Reagan's last-minute offer would not significantly tie his hands in supporting the Nicaraguan insurgency, and congressional leaders said it represented enough of a compromise to put him very close to victory when the House votes today. An affirmative vote by Congress would lift an existing two-year ban on military aid to the rebels, known as contras.
The compromise, which the President promised to implement by issuing an executive order shortly after receiving the approval of the House and Senate, would allow the contras to receive immediately $25 million in training, logistical support and surface-to-air missiles. But offensive weaponry such as guns and bullets would be withheld for 90 days.
Time for Peace Talks
While the brief delay is designed to give Nicaragua's Marxist leaders time to enter into peace negotiations with the resistance forces, there are no indications that the Sandinistas have eased their earlier opposition to such talks.
House Democratic leaders opposing the $100-million aid package promptly made a counterproposal designed to halt the momentum that the President's offer appeared to be building. If the House defeats the aid package today, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) pledged to schedule another vote April 15 on substitute legislation that would make mandatory many elements of Reagan's non-binding compromise.
Reagan's offer won him the support of about 10 Republicans and a few conservative Democrats who previously were undecided. But O'Neill's response enabled him to reclaim a number of Democratic swing votes that had been moving toward the President--including that of the self-proclaimed leader of this group, Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.).
"The vote has narrowed very slightly, but we're still ahead," insisted Assistant Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), who strongly denied the suggestions of White House officials that the President needed only four more votes to win House approval of the aid.
Rep. Rodney Chandler (R-Wash.), who helped to negotiate the compromise with the White House, said it brought the President "within a hair's breadth" of winning.
Michel Felt Betrayed
The most ardent GOP supporters of contra aid, many of whom had hoped to use the House vote as a litmus test for conservatives in the next election, were disappointed by the last-minute offer of compromise by the White House. House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) indicated that he felt betrayed because the President for many weeks had spurned proposals to limit his discretion in dispensing aid to the contras.
"I'm not sure whatever compromise you're talking about is the best way to win over the long haul," Michel said.
Contained within the President's proposed executive order are a grab bag of tiny giveaways, each designed to answer the complaints of a particular group in Congress. For example, he promised to set aside $2 million to fund regional peace talks and another $5 million to aid resistance forces that are not affiliated with the United Nicaraguan Opposition, the umbrella contra group.
In addition, he pledged to give no money to any group involved in drug smuggling or human rights violations; stated unequivocally that he would not use CIA contingency funds to provide additional aid; promised to seek $1.2 billion in economic assistance for all of the countries in Central America in fiscal 1988 and 1989, and offered to cooperate with a special bipartisan commission appointed by Congress to monitor diplomatic efforts.
During the 90-day hiatus Reagan proposed in assistance for offensive weapons, the White House would dispatch special envoy Philip C. Habib on what was described as "an urgent mission" to the capitals of Central America. Habib would ask those governments to join the United States in urging the Nicaraguan government to open peace talks with the contras.
At the end of the 90 days, Reagan would be free to commence a full-blown program of military aid to the contras--but only after certifying to Congress that the Nicaraguan government had not entered into negotiations, had not agreed to a cease-fire and had not restored basic rights to the people of Nicaragua. He would also wait an additional 15 days to allow Congress to block the move with legislation requiring the President's signature.
If the Sandinistas should agree to a cease-fire, negotiations and a restoration of rights at any time after aid had begun to flow to the contras, the President pledged that he once again would suspend aid for offensive military weapons.
If the President's plan is defeated by the House, Democrats are expected to offer at least two separate options on April 15. One authored by McCurdy would be similar to the White House compromise, except that Congress would not need the President's signature to halt military aid after the 90-day waiting period. Another, authored by Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, would provide for diplomacy without any aid.
McCurdy's plan is expected to have broad bipartisan support; Hamilton's is likely to appeal only to the most liberal members of his party.
During 10 scheduled hours of floor debate on the issue, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) warned that liberal Democrats opposing the aid are going to be held responsible for the consequences if the package is defeated--including increased immigration into the United States.
"As the refugees stream north, history is going to assign to you folks the role of pallbearers at the funeral of democracy in Central America," Hyde said.
California politics also became entangled in the debate. Rep. Ed Zschau (R-Los Altos), a candidate for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate, declared that he has decided to support the President's proposal--even though he voted against Reagan last year.
Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Northridge), who is vying for the same nomination, then jumped to her feet to emphasize that Zschau had voted against the President last year. "How pleased I am that you have decided to support us on this issue," she said.