President Reagan, declaring that he will not "preside over the communization of Central America," on Wednesday formally sent Congress his $36.25-million request for assistance to Nicaragua's Contras after abandoning a plan to give Congress a voice in determining whether and when military funds in the package could be released.
Congressional Democrats quickly denounced Reagan's aid proposal and predicted that they have enough votes to defeat it in the House. A group of key Democrats already is planning to propose a competing aid package that would eliminate any funds for military supplies.
Reagan pledged to hold in escrow the $3.6-million military segment of his funding request as long as progress is made toward a cease-fire between the Contras and Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
The White House had sought to devise a compromise that would have given Congress a role in deciding when these funds could be released. However, only a day after Reagan and several senators had discussed the proposed compromise, the White House decided that it could not overcome constitutional obstacles, involving separation of powers, in working out the formula.
Instead, Reagan said, he would "personally consult the presidents of the four Central American democracies" before resuming the weapons flow to the Contras under his proposed plan, although White House officials gave no guarantee that he would be bound by their views.
A senior State Department official said a schedule is being drawn up for Secretary of State George P. Shultz for a one-stop trip to Central America within several weeks to confer with regional leaders about their peace efforts.
The aid package has become a centerpiece of the President's foreign policy during his final year in office, and White House officials made it clear Wednesday that Reagan will direct nearly all his energies in coming days to winning approval of the proposal when the House votes on it Wednesday.
"This is the do-or-die point," presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said of the last-ditch effort to win support for the Contras. "The money that we're requesting will dictate the lifeblood of the (Nicaraguan) Resistance."
Barring a drastic change in the current political climate, there will be no more votes in this Congress on the issue of Contra aid.
Administration Backs Away
The White House, facing a Democratic majority in the House and Senate that was objecting to the plan well before it was prepared, had searched frantically for a compromise that might draw crucial swing votes. But, in the end, the Administration backed away from several compromise proposals that had been under discussion.
California Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the third-ranking member of the Democratic leadership, declared, "This thing is dead on arrival."
That view was echoed by several much-courted moderates.
"It's a political vote," said Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), one of several swing votes who was phoned Wednesday by Reagan. "They have no chance, and they know they're going to lose, so they're going to make political hay with it."
Although Republicans maintained that the vote still could be won, their own counts largely confirmed Democratic tallies.
Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the Republicans' chief vote counter in the House, conceded that there are enough GOP defectors to defeat the aid plan if, as expected, the vast majority of the 258 Democrats in the House remain opposed.
Dire Consequences Seen
Reagan, in a speech to the Reserve Officers Assn., warned of the "catastrophic consequences of cutting off aid and, thus, pulling the rug out from under the democratic resistance in Nicaragua."
"We cannot go to the bargaining table empty-handed. That, in the end, would assure a Marxist-Leninist regime on the American mainland. And I didn't come to Washington to preside over the communization of Central America," the President said.
The $3.6 million in military assistance would pay for ammunition and Redeye surface-to-air missiles to be used against the Sandinistas' Soviet-supplied helicopters. The rest of the $36.25-million package was earmarked for medicine, food, clothing, communications equipment and trucks.
Democratic leaders said that $20 million of the so-called non-lethal segment would be used for ground and aerial transportation of the weapons and other goods.
An additional $20 million would be available to pay for the cost of any leased transport aircraft lost in the resupply missions. A DC-6 was shot down over Nicaragua last weekend.
Delivery of weapons under the current funding arrangement for the Contras must be completed by Feb. 29. Under Reagan's plan, such supply operations would be suspended until March 31.
The military funds would then remain in escrow unless he certified their release, which would depend on three factors: that there is no cease-fire between the Nicaraguan government and the Contras; that the Contras have negotiated in good faith, and that Nicaragua has not moved toward the democratic reforms it has promised.
Reagan put forth his proposal on the eve of the first direct cease-fire talks between the Sandinistas and the Contras, scheduled to begin today in San Jose, Costa Rica. The plan was opposed Wednesday by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to negotiate a regional peace agreement.
Arias cited the reduced aid package submitted by Reagan--the White House had spoken last autumn of a $270-million, 18-month program--and said, "I fear the lower figure could draw more support in Congress."
Nicaraguan Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Victor Hugo Tinoco dismissed the idea of an escrow account, asking, "Do you think Reagan would ever certify that we were complying at any point?" He added: "The approval of these funds would be a significant blow to the peace efforts. It would practically unravel them."
Reagan conferred with members of Congress, including House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), a leader of the opposition to renewed Contra aid, on three occasions Wednesday in a preview of the lobbying campaign that the White House is likely to mount.
"You'll see members of the Congress streaming through here in the next several days," Fitzwater said. In addition, White House officials are considering a presidential address to the nation early next week before the vote to help build pressure on the lawmakers.
Times staff writers Josh Getlin in Washington and Marjorie Miller in San Jose, Costa Rica, contributed to this story.