House, in Crucial Vote, Rejects Aid to Contras : Reagan Loses $36-Million Bid, 219-211
In a major victory for congressional Democrats, the House voted after a marathon session late Wednesday to reject $36.25 million in assistance for the Nicaraguan Contras, dealing a severe blow to one of President Reagan’s chief foreign policy initiatives.
The final vote, which capped an emotional, 12-hour debate on the bitterly divisive issue, was 219-211. It effectively killed Reagan’s plan for providing weapons and other aid to fortify the Contras’ combat operations this year against the Sandinista government.
Now, the rebels’ chances for winning any U.S. assistance rest with their Democratic critics, who have said they will introduce an alternative proposal in a few weeks that would provide limited help--perhaps food, clothing and other “non-lethal” supplies.
Although the rebels have been stockpiling arms in the event of a U.S. cutoff, the denial of significant aid would sharply limit the scale of their operations and force them to campaign for money from other nations and private donors, U.S. officials and Contra leaders say.
Wednesday night’s vote came after an intense Administration lobbying campaign to win over undecided House members and was a major setback for the White House. Despite a televised appeal by Reagan and personal contacts with wavering moderates, in the end few went over his side. And the defeat indicated that the President may have trouble pushing other key programs through Congress as he enters his final year in office.
“There is a clear message in this vote,” said Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), who had been wavering on the issue before finally voting against the proposal. “It is a signal to the President that he must not think only in terms of military solutions . . . that he should embrace the Central American peace process and give peace a chance in the region.”
But Republicans voiced anger that Congress was now “abandoning” the Nicaraguan rebels and placing too much faith in the Sandinista government to carry out promised democratic reforms. They also vowed that the issue would come up for additional votes this year.
“This issue isn’t going to go away, no matter what the outcome,” said Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.). “How many times are we going to vote on this? The answer is, ‘As many times as it takes.’ ”
The Senate will conduct its own debate and vote on Reagan’s Contra aid package today, according to a schedule set before the House vote, but because the proposal had to be approved by both houses of Congress to be enacted into law, that action will have little meaning.
Democrats, while savoring their victory, cautioned that they still are skeptical about the Sandinistas’ intentions to comply with the peace plan agreed to by Central America’s five nations. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega “ought to read this vote very carefully,” said California Rep. George Miller (D-Concord), a strong opponent of Contra aid. “We’re telling both sides--the Contras and the Sandinistas--that they must comply with the peace process.”
Broadcast in Nicaragua
In Nicaragua, the official Voice of Nicaragua radio kept listeners informed of the House debate through periodic telephone interviews with the country’s ambassador in Washington, Carlos Tunnermann.
Tunnermann called the vote a reflection of “the majority sentiment” of the American people and “a triumph of the sacrifice of Nicaraguans in defense of our revolution.”
During the acrimonious debate, which was interrupted at one point by anti-Contra protesters, House members on both sides said they supported the peace plan, but they clashed over the best ways to find peace.
Components of Plan Hit
Democrats attacked the components of Reagan’s aid package, charging that in addition to the $3.6 million allocated for military supplies, some of the $32.25 million earmarked for “non-lethal” equipment also could be used for war.
“Is a helicopter non-lethal? Is a jeep non-lethal? Is a plane used for CIA (equipment) drops in Nicaragua non-lethal?” asked California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica). “This request will triple the amount of money going to the Contras on a monthly basis, and it’s a massive escalation of the war.”
Others said Reagan’s push to re-supply the Contras was ill-timed, in view of the peace plan sponsored by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez and the recent promises by Ortega to make democratic reforms in his country.
“Supporting Contra aid and the peace process is like taking a six-pack to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. You just can’t have it both ways.” said Rep. Edwin J. Markey (D-Mass.).
‘Affront to Democracy’
Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), echoing the statements of other Democrats, said, “I don’t think there’s a member in this House who supports that nasty dictatorship down there in Nicaragua. It’s an affront to democracy. But the question is no longer whether we support the Sandinistas, it’s whether we support peace.”
House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) took a shot at an earlier remark by Reagan that he did not come to Washington to “preside over the communization” of the region.
“None of us came to Washington to preside over Central America in any sense,” Wright said. “We came to preside over the United States. Let’s accord them with respect, let’s be supportive of them.”
Peace and Freedom
Republicans countered that the issue was peace and freedom, stressing that the threat of a continued Contra war was the best guarantee that Ortega would honor his promises to expand civil liberties and remedy other grievances.
“This vote is not a debate whether we’re for or against the Central American peace plan,” said Rep. Beverly Byron (D-Md.). “It’s a debate whether we trust the Sandinistas to keep their word. The only reason that Sandinistas are at the peace table is because of the Contras, and we can’t abandon them now.”
California Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the Democrats’ chief vote-counter, said he believed Reagan miscalculated in insisting that the aid package contain military equipment.
“Many people in his own party told him to reconsider that part of the proposal. He really doesn’t understand the tremendous support in Congress for the peace process,” Coelho said.
House members clashed over Reagan’s last-minute offer to let Congress vote on whether to release military aid to the Contras. That promise was made Tuesday night in his address to the nation.
‘Most Generous Offer’
Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) called it a “most generous offer,” noting that the rebels would not receive any new weapons or ammunition if Congress approved a resolution in several months saying that the Sandinistas were in compliance with the Central American peace plan.
Democrats, however, dismissed the offer as a ploy to win additional votes. Rep. Andrew Jacobs (D-Ind.) said it was unlikely that House members would vote for a resolution “saying the Sandinistas are good guys. That’s a slick Hollywood move . . . nobody would go for that.”
As the lobbying increased this week, both sides said the battle had come down to about 20 to 30 undecided moderates, mostly Southern Democrats, who were uneasy about giving the Contras more weapons but were also unwilling to abandon them.
Democrats said their strategy of drafting an alternative plan gives House members “something to vote on . . . it wouldn’t seem that we were just abandoning the Contras,” Coelho said.
With Reagan’s plan defeated, Wright called on Republicans to support a package of more limited assistance, even though some had indicated during the debate they were leery of it.
“I can’t imagine them not supporting it. It’s strictly humanitarian aid,” he said.
Yet there are strong differences between moderate Democrats, who wanted an aid package that would somehow keep the Contras together as a fighting unit, and liberals, who insisted that the alternative aid package be limited to “blankets, Band-Aids and medicine,” according to a Senate Democratic aide.
Wright and other Democratic leaders refused to divulge details about their alternative proposal, saying only that it would come before Congress for a vote within three weeks.