Secretary of State James A. Baker III struck a deal Wednesday with a key lawmaker that signals a sharp future cutback in military aid to El Salvador and assures rapid delivery of $720 million in aid to help restore the ravaged economies of Panama and Nicaragua.
Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) said Baker promised to negotiate in good faith on legislation to slash aid to El Salvador as a protest of human rights abuses by government troops during a 10-year-old civil war with leftist rebels.
The Salvadoran aid reduction will be attached to next year's foreign aid appropriations bill, scheduled for House consideration in late June, Moakley told reporters after his telephone conversation with the secretary of state.
In return, Moakley and House Democratic leaders agreed to clear for passage, probably today, an emergency appropriations bill that earmarks $420 million for Panama's reform government and $300 million for Nicaragua's new non-Communist regime.
Both countries were devastated by U.S. sanctions during the reigns of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega in Panama and Sandinista President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
"No one wants to be responsible for what happens in Nicaragua or Panama in the next few weeks," said Moakley, who could have sought to stall the Central American aid through his clout as chairman of the House Rules Committee, which serves as traffic cop for legislation.
Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) insisted on approving the aid bill, as President Bush had asked, before Congress leaves for a two-week Memorial Day recess. And Moakley agreed that the House did not want to turn its back on Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the new Nicaraguan president who recently declared that her nation is bankrupt.
Moakley's negotiating position with Baker was bolstered by a surprisingly strong 250-to-163 vote in the House on Tuesday night to cut El Salvador's military aid from $85 million to $42.5 million this year and next year.
The action signaled Congress' growing dissatisfaction with a decade of reports of death squad activity by El Salvador's armed forces, capped by the slayings last year of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.
While the vote was described as symbolic because the underlying foreign aid authorization bill later was defeated, Moakley disputed the term.
"That was not a throwaway vote--it's etched," he said.
Foley, meanwhile, termed it a "watershed vote," reflecting a tougher attitude by the House toward atrocities in El Salvador.
Opponents of the military aid cut amendment, chiefly sponsored by Moakley, said it would undercut the Salvadoran regime's negotiating position at peace talks with the left-wing guerrillas and undermine reform efforts by President Alfredo Cristiani.
But supporters noted that the amendment would have allowed Bush to restore the aid if the guerrillas launch another offensive or receive more arms from abroad. Bush also could restore the aid if the Administration determines the rebels are not bargaining in good faith at peace talks sponsored by the United Nations. The two sides, meeting in Caracas, Venezuela, approved an agenda and a six-month period to complete the talks, a U.N. spokesman said Monday.
The amendment also would require a cut-off of aid if Cristiani is deposed by a coup or if his government does not thoroughly investigate the Jesuits' murders.
The emergency appropriations bill, which passed the House early in April, was expanded in the Senate to include unrelated domestic spending and now totals $3.4 billion.