President Reagan will ask Congress for "somewhat less than $50 million" to sustain Nicaragua's Contra rebels as Central American peace efforts unfold, the White House said today.
Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the request, which faces make-or-break votes in the House and Senate early next month, will cover a four- or five-month period and that most of the money would be earmarked for non-lethal assistance.
"We want to tailor our request to the situation we find ourself in in Nicaragua," Fitzwater said, "so we would be tailoring ourself to keep the (Contra) resistance as a viable force and would seek to do that with as much humanitarian aid as possible and as little lethal aid as possible."
If Congress approves the aid package, described by one White House official as a bare minimum, it would create a legislative situation that would allow Reagan to submit a supplemental funding bill later.
But if the request is rejected, Administration officials fear it would effectively kill U.S. backing of the Contras for the remainder of this year.
Fitzwater said the request will be submitted to Congress next Tuesday, the day after Reagan delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.
$270 Million Bid Dropped
Reagan had initially considered requesting about $270 million in new Contra aid over a period of 18 months but dropped those plans, apparently in the face of growing congressional opposition.
"The $270 million has been pretty much overtaken by events down there (in Central America)," Fitzwater said today.
Fitzwater was referring to concessions made by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega over the weekend in talks assessing the progress of the Central American peace plan.
Meanwhile, in a surprise move, a Nicaraguan government delegation arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica, and asked the Contra rebels to open the first direct cease-fire talks of the 6-year-old war a week ahead of schedule.
Contra leaders began meeting today with mediator Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo to discuss the framework for direct talks next week with the Sandinistas.
But Victor Hugo Tinoco, Nicaragua's deputy foreign minister, and his delegation arrived unexpectedly late Wednesday and told the Associated Press that the direct talks should begin right after the Contras meet with Obando y Bravo.
"If the Resistance (the Contras) accept that we meet, we would be gaining time. Depending on what is agreed, we would probably schedule to hold a second meeting within the next few days," Tinoco said after arriving from Managua.
The unexpected move caught the Contras off balance. Rebel leaders issued statements saying they were not ready to meet with their Sandinista foes, but were not closing the door on such talks.
"We have come to San Jose only to talk with Cardinal Obando and here we'll determine the date when we can undertake the meeting with the Sandinista Front," Pedero Joaquin Chamorro, a leader of the Nicaraguan Resistance, the Contra's political arm, said in an interview with United Press International.
"We don't believe it is convenient to meet them directly after our appointment with the cardinal."
He also said the full cease-fire commission of the Contras had not come to San Jose, making it impossible to meet this week with the Sandinistas.
But Chamorro said the Contras "would be flexible, and anything is possible," although the rebels prefer to meet only with the cardinal this week.