President Bush adamantly defended U.S. aid to El Salvador on Monday as Congress narrowly defeated efforts to trim military assistance to the Salvadoran government after the slayings of six Jesuit priests.
Speaking in Chicago, Bush said El Salvador's "fragile democracy" is under assault from both the left and the right and needs U.S. support. He added that he "absolutely" believes the Salvadoran government's assurances that it was not behind last week's killings.
Bush, who was heckled by protesters, including three nuns, said he had received personal assurances from Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani that "they will do everything they can to bring to justice, whether they're from the right or the left, those who wantonly murdered those priests." In the meantime, he added, "we must not pull our support away from a freely elected democratic government in Central America."
Congressional lawmakers, debating U.S. policy toward El Salvador in the House and the Senate, made it clear in strong terms that many of them do not share the President's confidence in Cristiani.
But, citing the threat of another presidential veto, the lawmakers rejected last-minute attempts to withhold a portion of the military aid earmarked for El Salvador in a revised foreign aid appropriations bill. The bill was passed by the House.
On the Senate side, an attempt to withhold funds to El Salvador was blocked late Monday night by a vote of 58 to 39. Soon after, the Senate passed the aid bill by voice vote.
The $14.6-billion appropriations bill, which includes $85 million in military assistance to El Salvador, was vetoed by Bush on Sunday night because of a provision allocating $15 million to a United Nations family planning agency that critics charged is helping to fund coerced abortions in China.
Rushing to conclude its business for the year and recess before Thanksgiving, lawmakers quickly drafted a substitute bill dropping the family planning allocation. They also revised another provision that Bush said would have interfered with his authority to conduct foreign policy by barring the use of American aid to entice foreign governments into carrying out actions that would be illegal in the United States. The provision was drafted after disclosures in the Iran-Contra affair.
But a new controversy quickly emerged when House and Senate Democrats tried to attach an amendment that would have withheld 30% of the Salvador assistance until April 1 in order to express congressional anger at the slaying of the six priests and two civilian women last Thursday.
"The time has come to send a strong message to the government and the military of El Salvador: No more U.S. aid without respect for human rights," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said on the Senate floor.
"I for one have had enough of Salvadoran mock justice," he said in urging passage of the amendment.
"A democratically elected government such as exists in El Salvador cannot be democratic just by having an election," California Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) added on the House floor. Attacking the Cristiani government's record on human rights, Miller said, "There is a cancer loose in the country of El Salvador, and it is the death squads."
In the House, however, 53 Democrats sided with the Republicans and, on a 215-194 procedural vote, decided to block consideration of an amendment to cut the aid. The revised foreign aid bill was then passed by a 310-107 vote.
The majority argued that withholding aid to El Salvador now, when it is fighting off a determined offensive by leftist guerrillas in the capital, would undermine Cristiani's centrist government. They also insisted that there was no point in sending to the White House, at this late hour, another bill that Bush would be destined to veto.
In a compromise, the House, on a vote of 409 to 3, passed a resolution expressing its condemnation of the slayings and calling for an immediate cease-fire.
Seventy-four lawmakers, in a letter to be sent to Bush, warned they intend to seek a suspension of all military aid to El Salvador when Congress reconvenes in January if the Cristiani government has not mounted a "vigorous and intensive" investigation into the murders of the priests.
Still unsatisfied, California Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley) said he will introduce "as soon as possible" separate legislation to cut off all economic and military aid to El Salvador until the slayers of the six priests are brought to justice.
Bush, who is under fire from both Congress and human rights groups for his support of El Salvador, told guests at a political fund-raising luncheon in Chicago that Cristiani came to power through "certifiably free elections" and is "trying to do a job for democracy" in his war-torn country.
"The left-wing guerrillas must not take over El Salvador," Bush added.
The President got into a spirited exchange with hecklers who interrupted him twice, the first time to demand why the United States is "killing people" in El Salvador.
"The answer is we're not," Bush replied to the heckler, a well-dressed, gray-haired woman.
When a second protester shouted "Stop the repression in El Salvador!" Bush shot back, "It was the FMLN, the Marxist-Leninist FMLN, that shot its way into the middle of El Salvador, trying to disrupt Salvador's democracy."
Police ejected the hecklers from the Hyatt Regency Hotel ballroom, where Bush was addressing a fund-raising luncheon for the Senate campaign of Rep. Lynn Martin, an Illinois Republican. The President, appearing unflustered, added: "Now, who's next? All I ask is equal time. I love it. . . . It livens things up."
Outside the hall, one of the protesters, Sister Kathleen Desautels, a Roman Catholic nun, said the three women who heckled Bush were also nuns and that a fourth heckler, a man, was a seminarian.
Hecklers also enlivened the daylong Salvador debate on Capitol Hill on Monday, interrupting the proceedings on the Senate floor several times to shout "Stop the murder in El Salvador!" before being hustled out, handcuffed and taken away by Senate security guards.
Bush, speaking with reporters at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington earlier in the day, displayed irritation with his congressional critics and their calls to suspend aid to El Salvador.
"I must tell the Congress of the United States that I will not accept as President a cutoff of aid to El Salvador. That's it," Bush said.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this story.
10 YEARS OF TURMOIL
El Salvador was propelled to world attention by a bloody civil war between left-wing rebels and the U.S.-backed government. In a decade, the conflict has claimed more than 70,000 lives, mostly civilians. The following is a chronology of major events since the war began: 1979: Young reformist officers topple military President Carlos Humberto Romero and form junta with leftist civilians. The junta is then taken over by rightist officers. Left-wing guerrillas fail in attempt to launch revolt but manage to control half the country. 1980: State of siege is declared to defuse unrest. Gunmen kill Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, an outspoken defender of human rights. Right-wing death squads are linked to government security forces. Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte takes over as junta leader. Rape and murder of three American nuns and a lay worker prompts suspension of U.S. aid, but aid is soon resumed. 1981: Two U.S. labor lawyers and Salvadoran agrarian reformer slain in San Salvador. Five years later, two national guardsmen linked to death squads are sentenced to 30 years for the crimes. 1982: Saying human rights record has improved, U.S. boosts military and economic aid. Leftists boycott assembly elections. Christian Democrats win 40%, but five rightist parties form coalition under an extremist right-wing former army officer, Roberto d'Aubuisson. State of siege, lifted before elections, is reinstated. 1983: Deputy chief of U.S. military advisers shot to death--first U.S. military casualty. U.S. calls for end to right-wing death squads. 1984: Charges of fraud mark March presidential elections. Neither Duarte, with 43%, nor D'Aubuisson, with 29%, wins majority. Duarte wins May runoff and pledges end to death squads and human rights abuses. He holds unprecedented peace talks in rebel-held territory. Oct. 15 meeting ends with agreement to continue dialogue. But rebels demand power-sharing and refuse to lay down arms. 1987: Rebels withdraw from another scheduled round of peace talks after accusing government of involvement in slaying of prominent human rights activist Herbert Ernesto Anaya Sanabria. 1988: Duarte diagnosed as having stomach and liver cancer. He meets leftist rebels in October, after Central American presidents reach agreement on regional peace plan. Talks collapse. 1989: Alfredo Cristiani of Nationalist Republican Alliance wins March elections, takes office June 1. Reports of renewed death-squad activity mount. In mid-September, rebels and government hold peace talks, agree to meet once a month to try to negotiate end to war. Talks collapse about six weeks later. Source: Times Wire Services CHIEF WEAKENED--The rebel offensive also strengthens rightists. A14