President Reagan on Monday asked for an opportunity to address the House to make a personal appeal for aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, but Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) rejected it as an "unorthodox procedure."
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said that Reagan was "deeply disappointed" by O'Neill's refusal of his request to address the House today--just one day before that chamber is scheduled to vote on the proposed $100 million in aid for the contras, as the rebels are known . Wednesday's vote is expected to be extremely close.
O'Neill, a bitter foe of contras aid, said in a statement that an address by a President to one chamber of Congress is unprecedented in peacetime. He said he offered Reagan an opportunity to appear before a joint session of Congress, arguing that such an appearance would be more appropriate because any bill the House might pass would be different from a contras aid measure passed earlier this year by the Senate.
But the White House, without explanation, turned down that offer, although O'Neill said it remains open. Officials said the text of the speech Reagan proposed to make will be sent to each member of the House instead.
"Having the President appear before only one house to lobby for a legislative proposal would be unprecedented," O'Neill said. "The only justification for such an unorthodox procedure would be if the President would use the occasion to participate in an open dialogue with members of the body. A formal address should properly be made before a joint session."
The exchange was indicative of the intense emotion that O'Neill and Reagan frequently have shown on opposite sides of this highly controversial issue. Under O'Neill's leadership, the House has repeatedly frustrated Reagan's desire to supply the contras with weapons. The House has not permited military assistance to the rebels since early 1984, after Congress learned that the CIA had mined a Nicaraguan harbor.
The plan for a presidential address was devised by White House officials after House Republican leaders failed to negotiate a compromise measure that would have had the support of moderate House Democrats. Speakes acknowledged Monday that Reagan's aid proposal was still a few votes short of the number needed for passage in the House.
Speakes said that White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan called O'Neill on Monday afternoon to request an opportunity for the President to speak shortly before he leaves Washington for a week's vacation at his California ranch. He said O'Neill objected on grounds that such a speech would have "politicized" the issue.
The O'Neill-Regan conversation was characterized by a top White House aide as unfriendly. "There probably have been warmer conversations," he said.
The aide, who declined to be identified, said White House officials were stunned by the rejection.
"I think everyone was shocked that the President would not be allowed this opportunity to address the House," he said.
At the same time, White House researchers acknowledged that presidential speeches to one chamber are extremely rare. Among them have been an address by Thomas Jefferson about efforts to subdue the Barbary pirates, one by James Madison on the War of 1812, a Woodrow Wilson speech during World War I and speeches by Richard M. Nixon to each chamber on one evening in 1969 to thank lawmakers for supporting his conduct of the Vietnam War.
Reagan has made many speeches over the last few years on behalf of aid requests for the contras, one of them before a joint session of Congress. Speakes said the speech he wanted to deliver before the House would have outlined the historical trends in Central America, the "status, goals and prospects" of the contras, the type of negotiated settlement that he would support in the region and the kind of aid needed by the rebels.
On Wednesday, the House will be asked to decide between two different versions of Reagan's request for contras aid. Both proposals would provide at least $300 million in economic assistance to Nicaragua's neighbors: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica.
The Republican alternative authored by House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) would immediately give the contras $40 million--$28 million of which would be used for military purposes. The remainder of the aid would follow in two installments--$20 million on Oct. 15 and $40 million next Feb. 15.
The Democratic alternative authored by Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) would supply the contras with $30 million in humanitarian aid immediately but withhold any military assistance until Congress votes again on the issue after Oct. 1.