The Bush Administration and leaders of both parties in Congress reached agreement Thursday on the outline of a bipartisan policy on Nicaragua, the first such consensus in almost a decade of U.S. attempts to deal with the Sandinista revolution.
Under the agreement, hammered out in two weeks of hard bargaining on Capitol Hill, Congress will approve a 10-month renewal of non-military aid for the Contras who have been fighting to overthrow the leftist government, Administration officials and members of Congress said.
In return, they said, the Administration will commit itself to pursuing a peaceful, political solution to the Central American conflict, with the eventual goal of returning the Contras to civilian life in a more democratic Nicaragua.
President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III were still calling Republican senators Thursday evening, trying to win their agreement to the final version of the plan, aides said. A senior Administration official warned that the pact “could still come unglued” because of remaining opposition from both hard-line liberals and conservatives.
But barring any last-minute hitches, White House officials said, Bush plans to announce the bipartisan pact after a meeting with congressional leaders this morning.
“The point of this plan is to end the era in which Nicaragua was a contentious, divisive issue and to produce a policy which will clearly be United States policy--not just the Administration’s policy or the Democrats’ policy,” a State Department official said.
“We are keeping the Contras in place as a viable military force, which is a pressure point against the Sandinistas. . . . And now the Administration can begin to do its job, which is to use diplomatic pressure to bring democracy to Nicaragua.”
The agreement appeared to be a victory for both Baker, who devised and negotiated the pact, and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who delivered the support of a majority of House Democrats by holding out for a key amendment: a clause that allows Congress to halt aid to the Contras if it decides that the Administration is not pursuing a peaceful settlement.
The willingness of both sides to seek a consensus represents a major shift. The Reagan Administration had doggedly sought military aid for the Contras and showed little taste for compromise.
“Where we are united, we succeed in foreign policy, and where we’re divided, we fail,” Baker said earlier this week. “We’ve been divided on Central America; it’s been a very emotional and divisive issue for eight to 10 years. I think that before we can anticipate success in the region, we’re going to have to get our act together up here . . . and pursue a unified approach.”
‘Baker Is Sincere’
“I believe Jim Baker is sincere,” Wright said in an interview Wednesday, before the agreement was reached. ". . . Essentially, what has to be done is to give our colleagues (in Congress) an adequate assurance that our commitment is to the peace process.”
The agreement sets out a two-page statement of U.S. policies and objectives in Central America and pledges the Administration and both parties in Congress to work for their fulfillment, officials said. Its main provisions are that:
-- The United States will support the peace process already launched by the presidents of the five Central American nations to reach negotiated solutions to the region’s internal conflicts.
-- The United States will continue to press for full democracy in Nicaragua, including free and fair elections in February of next year.
-- At the same time, Congress will approve renewed non-military aid for the Contras for the 10 months beginning May 1, to maintain the rebels as a potential threat until the elections are held. The aid will be provided “at existing levels,” meaning about $5.2 million a month, according to Administration officials.
-- In return, the Administration will ensure that the Contras do not receive secret military aid and do not engage in offensive military action against the Sandinistas.
-- As democracy is achieved in Nicaragua, the United States will support the voluntary demobilization of the Contras and their reintegration into Nicaragua or relocation elsewhere in Central America.
-- The United States will also work to protect its own security interests in Central America, and will negotiate directly with the Soviet Union to reduce Soviet aid to Cuba and Nicaragua.
More Active Role Seen
Once the new, bipartisan policy is announced, the Administration is expected to take a more active role in the Central American diplomatic process than before, officials said. Among several actions under consideration, they said, Bush may name a special envoy to the region and Baker may visit the four U.S. allies there--El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica--as early as next month.
Among their aims, they said, will be to focus attention on Nicaragua’s internal political system so that the Sandinistas’ movement toward democracy, or their lack of movement, becomes the main issue in the area’s diplomacy.
The ultimate goal, at least on paper, is a free election in Nicaragua next February, and a political situation in which the Contras voluntarily disband. But senior Administration officials acknowledge that they are still skeptical that the Sandinistas are willing to meet U.S. demands for more democracy.
“They haven’t performed yet, have they?” asked one.
If diplomacy fails, Administration officials say that they reserve the right to ask Congress for military aid for the Contras to restart Nicaragua’s guerrilla war. But Wright and other Democrats adamantly insist that they will never agree to renewed military aid.
Pact Marks 1st Success
If the bipartisan pact on Central America holds up, even if only on Capitol Hill--it will be the Bush Administration’s first solid foreign policy success. Bush and Baker sought the unusual policy agreement, aides said, because both are convinced that the Administration’s success in foreign affairs depends directly on the breadth of bipartisan support it can command.
Within the first weeks after Bush’s election last November, Baker met with Wright in a long session to seek bipartisan cooperation. The meeting, at the apartment of former Democratic Party Chairman Robert S. Strauss, quickly turned to the thorny problem of Nicaragua, according to a source who was present.
Later, after Inauguration Day, Baker told his new aides at the State Department that a bipartisan agreement on Nicaragua was one of his first priorities.
On March 2, Baker quietly unveiled his proposal in meetings with Senate Republican leaders--and, again, with Wright. A senior Administration official told reporters that the goal of U.S. policy in Nicaragua has shifted from overthrowing the Sandinistas to merely “containing” them.
Initially, Baker’s plan won remarkable support from both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, weary of the long battles over Nicaragua policy. But last week, resistance to the plan increased among both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, prompting Baker to launch a feverish round of negotiations.
Skeptical Democrats, led by Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), complained that they were being asked to give the Administration a blank check. “I am simply looking for an escape hatch” if things go wrong, Obey said.
His “escape hatch” turned out to be an amendment to the plan that Baker accepted on Thursday. Under the amendment, the Administration can provide the Contras with aid from May through November but must seek the approval of congressional leaders before releasing any aid after that.
At the same time, officials said, some conservative Republicans complained that the plan went too far toward endorsing the goal of disbanding the Contras. The peace plan approved last month by the Central American presidents calls for dismantling the rebel army, but Administration officials contend that Nicaragua must achieve internal democracy first.
“A lot of the conservatives were unhappy with the language (in Baker’s plan) about relocation” of the Contras, one Administration official said. He said that Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) had expressed reservations about that provision.
In the end, officials said, Baker won the approval of the liberal House Democratic leadership before he was able to tie down the approval of his own conservative allies.
Times staff writers William J. Eaton and Jack Nelson contributed to this article.