After weeks of often tense negotiations, House Democrats agreed Tuesday night on a plan for non-military aid to the rebels in Nicaragua.
The plan, which is scheduled for a House vote Thursday, would give the Pentagon $16 million over the next four months to buy and deliver food, clothing, medicine and shelter for the Contras.
The CIA, whose authorization to deliver military and non-military aid to the Contras expires next Tuesday, would be barred from any role in the program, which also would supply $14 million to help injured children.
The plan, the product of delicate negotiations among Democrats, is designed to provide enough aid to satisfy conservatives within the party but not so much as to frighten off liberals. Democratic leaders said Tuesday that they believe they have the votes to pass the plan, but they conceded that the outcome could be close and immediately began strong lobbying for it.
The plan is essential "if members truly want to provide humanitarian aid and encourage both sides to negotiate in good faith," said House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.).
At the White House, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater declined to comment on whether the Reagan Administration would support the new plan, saying that it is still under review. Republican leaders in Congress also were reviewing the plan Tuesday night and had not taken a firm position.
Producing an aid plan has become a major test for Wright and the rest of the congressional Democratic leadership. The House defeated Reagan's $36.25-million Contra aid plan, which included $3.6 million in military aid, on Feb. 3, but failure to pass the Democratic plan could give the Administration the opportunity to regain the initiative.
That prospect now has become a key argument to Democratic liberals, who are being asked to support a plan that would help keep alive a rebel force that they have denounced.
Passage of the new plan "would keep control of the process in the hands of those who blocked military aid," said California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica).
Earlier in the negotiations, "I was one of those most skeptical about the package," said Levine, a strong opponent of Contra aid. But the new plan, he said, "will enhance the peace process."
The new package would halt U.S. military support for the Contras but maintain the flow of non-military aid through June 30. If the Contras and Nicaragua's Marxist-led Sandinista government agree on a cease-fire before then, aid would continue "in a manner compatible with the cease-fire agreement."
$1 Million for Indians
The $16 million in aid, including $1 million for Nicaragua's Miskito Indians, would be delivered by the Pentagon and subject to inspection by Congress' auditing agency, the General Accounting Office.
The $14 million in humanitarian aid to injured children on both sides of the Nicaraguan conflict would be handled by international relief agencies such as the Red Cross.
The existence of the children's aid fund is an important sweetener for liberal opponents of Contra aid, as are the ban on further CIA involvement with the Contras and a clause forbidding the Administration from transferring weapons to the Contras from existing stockpiles.
To make the package more acceptable to the Administration, the plan provides an expedited vote on reviving military aid to the Contras if a cease-fire in Nicaragua breaks down or the Sandinista government reneges on its promises to institute democratic reforms.
The ability to get a quick vote on military aid has been a key point for Administration officials, who have feared that any military aid request could be stalled in Congress. Under the plan, however, the House and Senate Intelligence committees, not Reagan, would decide whether the situation in Nicaragua warrants the expedited procedures.
Reagan's own plan for Contra aid, including $3.6 million in ammunition and weapons and additional millions in military logistical aid, lost in the House 219-211 in the Feb. 3 vote.
Passage of the new plan would be a victory not only for Wright but also for a group of moderate-to-conservative members of Congress who have argued that frequent congressional votes are the best way to maintain the pressure on both sides in the Nicaraguan conflict to achieve peace.
For both liberals and conservatives, however, the vote on the new plan will mean difficult decisions. Republicans vowed after the defeat of Reagan's plan that they would oppose any Democratic aid plan, saying it would be insufficient to keep the Contras together.
Democratic strategists assume, however, that a substantial number of Republicans will support the plan out of fear that if it fails, the Contras would get nothing.