Despite the opposition of Democratic leaders and an apparent majority of the American people, President Reagan's request for military assistance to the Nicaraguan rebels is rapidly gaining support among rank-and-file Democrats in Congress.
It is these Democratic swing votes that could turn the tide in favor of the President's policy in Central America when the House reconsiders the aid issue this week. An important test vote on the President's request is scheduled today, but the definitive House vote on the issue is not expected to take place until Wednesday.
Just a year ago, a clear majority of Democrats firmly opposed any military assistance for the anti-Sandinista contras, as the rebels are called. As a result, the $27 million in aid narrowly approved by Congress last June was earmarked strictly for "non-lethal" purposes.
March's Narrow Vote
But it was apparent that sentiment among Democrats was beginning to shift on March 20, when the Democratic-controlled House defeated the aid request by only a narrow vote, 222 to 210. Even more surprising, a number of Democratic liberals such as Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut voted in favor of a watered-down version of the President's military aid request before it passed the GOP-controlled Senate on March 27.
Democratic Party leaders cannot explain why so many members of their party are moving closer to the President's policy, especially since polls show a clear majority of Americans are opposed to military aid for the contras. In addition, a number of Democrats who intend to support the request admit that they do not believe Reagan's policy can succeed.
"If members of Congress were just reacting to the mood of their constituents, it probably wouldn't pass," said Rep. Michael Barnes (D-Md.), chairman of the House subcommittee on Latin American affairs. "The nation is opposed to the President's policy."
Fear of Blame
What has turned these Democrats around, according to the Republican leadership, is a strong fear that opponents of the Administration's policy will be blamed publicly by Reagan if Nicaragua's Marxist government succeeds in expanding its influence throughout Central America.
"Democrats live in holy terror that the President will go on the tube and lambaste them for a vote," said Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "They live in fear of his communicative ability."
Adding to the Democrats fears, a number of right-wing groups have threatened to make contras aid a key issue in the congressional elections next November--singling out opponents much as they did supporters of the Panama Canal treaty in the 1980 elections.
"People believe they are going to make it another Panama Canal," said a Senate Democratic aide. "The fact is these groups have the resources to make it a campaign labeling their opponents as pro-communist."
'Now's the Time'
But the President's lobbying strategy does not depend on fear alone. Barnes charged that the President is "hustling" for votes and that many Democrats who were reluctant to vote for the request have been persuaded by the White House with special favors.
"If you want a bridge in your district, if you want the secretary of agriculture to appear in your district, it's yours," he said. "Anything you want from this Administration . . . now's the time to get it."
Even though House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) fervently opposes contras aid, he never has been able to hold his party in line on the issue. In previous years, leading conservative Democrats from Sun Belt states have consistently supported weakened versions of the President's annual requests for contras aid. One such Democrat in the Senate is Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia.
While liberal Democrats still firmly oppose contras aid, many of them are now softening their opposition somewhat by supporting half-measures. Next Thursday, for example, a number of liberal Democrats are expected to vote for an amendment authored by conservative Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) that would allow military aid for the contras with certain restrictions.
Although these liberals probably will argue that by voting for the McCurdy amendment they are supporting only the restrictions--not the military aid--House sources said that they actually view it as a way to prevent being singled out by the President next November.
Yet, Democratic Party leaders insist that their members have nothing to fear on the contras aid issue next November. "If they are voting out of political fear, they don't need to," insisted Mark Johnson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "They are just being extra cautious."
According to Johnson, a Democratic poll taken in the conservative, heavily agricultural Minnesota district of Republican Rep. Vin Weber shows that 9% of the voters strongly favor contras aid, 11% favor it somewhat, 24% oppose it somewhat and 47% strongly oppose it.
Johnson said that farmers generally oppose contras aid on grounds that the $100 million sought by the President would better be spent to help keep them afloat. David Johnson, Weber's Democratic opponent, has adopted the slogan: "Weber's for contras; I'm for combines."
Even many Republicans acknowledge that they see little political advantage in supporting contras aid. Rep. Rod Chandler (R-Wash.) said that most of his constituents do not know the difference between the contras and the Sandinistas.
"Probably the prevailing view is bewilderment and uncertainty," Chandler said. "I get an awful lot of people asking: 'Who are the good guys here?' "