Reagan Wins Battle in the Contra War : But Vote Is Still Out on U.S. Policy

<i> Richard E. Cohen is congressional correspondent for for the National Journal</i>

Congressional approval of President Reagan’s request for military aid to the contra rebels battling the Nicaraguan government has become a foregone conclusion. Lawmakers on both sides of the issue agree to that, but whether the result is a ringing endorsement of specific U.S. policy is less certain.

Administration officials are likely to claim that the House vote, scheduled next week, vindicates Reagan’s opposition to the regime in Managua and his decision to risk a high-profile fight for the $100-million assistance. The expected outcome is undeniably a presidential victory, if only because it represents a dramatic turn-around from the 1985 debate, when Reagan won a relatively paltry $27 million in “humanitarian” aid for the contra rebels.

But credit for the result goes to several factors, not the least of which have been Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s military and diplomatic activities. Recent events--the well-publicized movement of Nicaraguan troops into neighboring Honduras and the collapse last Monday of the Contadora talks in Panama with other Latin American nations--have helped to pull the rug from under congressional critics of Reagan’s policies.

The debate of the past few weeks, by revealing serious doubts about further American intervention, shows that Reagan would face strong opposition, even from supporters, if he directly involves U.S. troops once the proposed $100 million in aid runs out and the contras demand more help.


The Administration may eventually be forced to resolve what has seemed an inconsistent message about its ultimate goal in Nicaragua. Would it be satisfied with its stated policy of forcing Nicaragua to coexist with foes inside its border and elsewhere in Central America? Or is its real goal to overthrow Ortega? As Reagan said in his televised April 9 press conference, “The Soviet Union, Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas are determined to make the region a communist enclave. Well, we must not and we will not permit that to happen.”

Domestically, the immediate result appears likely to be a defeat for Democratic leaders in the House and Senate who have firmly opposed unconditional military aid. After Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr (D-Mass.) led a narrow House victory against contra aid in March, enough Democrats now appear ready to switch their votes when the issue returns to the House in a slightly revised format this week. The Senate approved an Administration-backed contra- aid package on a 53-47 vote on March 27. (Even if Reagan wins this time, procedural complications may pose delays before the House and Senate formally agree on a measure Reagan will be willing to sign.)

In the longer term, the national Democratic Party appears to have bought some political insurance by refusing to stand in Reagan’s way--meanwhile placing, on the record, the opposition of most of its members should future events go badly in Central America. At the same time, it allowed lawmakers from conservative districts an opportunity to side with the President.

But there has been a curious split among the emerging Democratic leaders. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) for example, voted for the contra- aid package “with misgivings and reservations” because of the threat posed by the Sandinistas to their neighbors; former Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, the chairman of the new-breed Democratic Leadership Council, said he supports the plan because of the need to preserve all foreign-policy options. On the other hand, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), an early contender for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, called military aid to the contras “a cruel and futile risk.”


Although most Republicans lawmakers have backed Reagan, a few have demonstrated their independence. Polls have consistently showed strong public opposition to financial support of the contras. Perhaps surprisingly, that lack of presidential appeal outside the Capitol Beltway may even extend, on this issue, to Reagan’s natural constituency. Rep. Ed Zschau (R-Los Altos), a candidate for the GOP nomination to oppose Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), said last week that a poll conducted for his campaign showed that 52% of California Republicans disapproved of the contra- aid package; Zschau voted for the package this year after opposing it in 1985.

As much as anything, approval of contra- aid demonstrates the powerful influence, among lawmakers, of a President--especially one reelected in a 49-state landslide. Reagan decided to push on what he considers a major national security objective and expended more of his political capital than last year, when he focused his own and public attention more heavily on tax reform. “It’s difficult to deny a President his major foreign-policy goal of the year,” said a senior House Democratic aide. On the other hand, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) acknowledged after the Senate vote that success did not come easily.

The Administration has encountered some glitches along the way. Even supporters agreed that White House aide Patrick J. Buchanan used too blunt an instrument with his comment that last month’s House vote was a choice between “Ronald Reagan and the resistance or Daniel Ortega and the communists.” Administration hyping of the “incursion” by Nicaraguan forces into Honduras, in the week between the initial House and Senate votes, also was seen as heavy-handed, although senators on both sides later said that it probably caused no vote switches.

Ortega’s actions undoubtedly lowered his standing among those inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt; O’Neill immediately reacted by calling him a “bumbling, incompetent Marxist.” The main difference between Democrats and Republicans is now whether the United States should support attempts to topple the Sandinistas. “We have every right to insist that the Nicaraguan government leave its neighbors in peace,” said Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Texas) last week. “But we don’t have any right to tell them what kind of government they should have in their own country.”


Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.) said that the debate in Congress has left U.S. policy-makers a choice between the analogies of Cuba and Vietnam: Will we allow a communist government near our borders or will we spend countless lives and dollars in a perhaps fruitless bid to root it out? The answer--or some other choice--appears even more uncertain after the recent debate.