President Reagan told a group of House Democrats on Thursday that he is “shocked and dismayed” at House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr.'s effort to link a $100-million aid package for the Nicaraguan rebels to a supplemental spending bill that is targeted for a presidential veto.
“It is clearly an effort to kill our proposal by delaying tactics, tactics that could jeopardize the lives of the freedom fighters,” Reagan said during the 80-minute meeting. “How can we expect those brave people to live with the uncertainty of where America stands?”
White House officials said privately that they felt betrayed by O’Neill’s tactic, citing a pledge he made to Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan not to “play games” with the vote, which is expected early next week.
O’Neill said it was the White House that broke a promise by turning the debate over aid to the contras , as the rebels are known, into a partisan issue.
Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, who was among the 20 House Democrats who met with Reagan, said he favored a separate vote on the aid package but added that “it’s the Speaker’s call.” Aspin voted against the package last month but indicated that he was ready to change his mind and support the President.
He also predicted that Reagan would get essentially what he wants in the showdown vote next week. “The odds are some form of military aid with some restrictions will be approved,” he told reporters.
However, O’Neill’s parliamentary maneuver could undermine Reagan’s victory. If the House Rules Committee endorses the Speaker’s effort next week to tie contra aid to a costly spending bill that White House officials have called “veto bait,” the President would almost certainly have to veto the entire package.
In his session with the Democrats, Reagan called O’Neill’s move “a process that attempts to thwart the will of Congress.” White House officials have predicted in recent days that they have the votes necessary to win in the House.
“The most damaging effect is delay,” said White House spokesman Larry Speakes. “It gives them (the Nicaraguan government) more time to consolidate their position and wipe out the freedom fighters.”
Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), a veteran of more than 30 years in the House, was asked why O’Neill was insisting on linking the two bills. “There are things in the supplemental (bill) that the Speaker wants,” he said. “You put them together and you have a package everybody can live with.”
However, Fascell agreed that the more likely result would be further delay in getting aid to the contras but eventual victory for Reagan. “I’ve been around long enough to know the issue is not going to go away,” he told reporters.
Speakes said that White House officials have recommended that Reagan veto the supplemental measure, which Speakes characterized as “a Christmas tree bill that adds up to big dollars.”
The $1.7-billion supplemental spending bill includes, among other things, funding for disaster relief, air safety, the Internal Revenue Service and the Coast Guard. Much of the disaster relief is targeted for California and other states that suffered severe flooding earlier this year.
With the spending bill facing a veto of its own, O’Neill apparently is gambling that Reagan could be forced into signing it to get the contra aid.
On Thursday, Secretary of State George P. Shultz contacted O’Neill to smooth over another dispute, which stemmed from the Speaker’s trip to South America last week. O’Neill was upset by reports that U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Frank V. Ortiz Jr. had sent Washington a cable criticizing the Speaker’s conduct in Buenos Aires.
The cable said that O’Neill and two other congressmen, Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.) and California Rep. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Oakland), persisted “in attempting to obtain official Argentine condemnation of Administration policies.”
O’Neill insisted that those who attended the meetings, with the exception of Ortiz, believed that the sessions “were held perfectly fairly.”
Times staff writer Sara Fritz contributed to this story.
A new Salvadoran army operation is routing the rebels’ civilian supporters. Page 22.