Democrats see hurdles ahead for `contra' aid as issue passes to the House

President Reagan is basking in California sunshine after a narrow victory in the Senate on aid for the Nicaraguan rebels. But the President is far from home free on the issue. When he returns from vacation, he will face having to apply plenty of political muscle to turn the House around by its vote on April 15.

Most political observers predict the House will give Mr. Reagan the $100 million in military and economic aid he seeks. But Democratic congressional sources say that in the next two weeks several factors will affect the kind of compromise hammered out:

As more information emerges about the latest Nicaraguan incursion into Honduras, the administration may have to do more explaining. There are conflicting reports about what precisely took place.

Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega Saavedra said on Sunday, for instance, that President Reagan had blown the incursion out of proportion to assure Senate approval of ``contra'' aid. The incursion was no different from ``operations that have been going on for years in this area,'' he said.

Concern may grow that the administration, by sending in United States Army helicopters to help Honduran forces fly in weapons, ammunition, and other supplies to the border area, has in effect involved American troops in the contra-Sandinista fight. The President maintains he will not commit US troops to Nicaragua.

The so-called Contadora nations -- Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela -- are scheduled to meet April 5 and 6 to try to revive efforts toward a diplomatic settlement in Central America. This may generate a stronger legislative demand for a negotiating option.

House majority whip Thomas S. Foley (D) of Washington yesterday raised his concern about the objective of US policy in Nicaragua. Some in the administration, he said on CBS' ``Face the Nation,'' want to overthrow the Sandinistas. If aid for the contras proves inadequate and the contras are unable to achieve that objective, the US would either have to abandon the rebels or send in its forces.

Looking back over the recent period of maneuvering, the President has not emerged looking quite as strong as he might have. His political strategy was clumsy, many analysts say, and he has not forged the bipartisan consensus needed on a key foreign-policy issue.

Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas told reporters last week that he hoped to snare 70 votes for some version of the President's plan. Such a solid win with bipartisan support, he said, would mean the difference between ``politics'' and ``policy.'' It would also have improved chances in the House for an aid package similar to the President's plan.

Despite intensive efforts to find a bipartisan middle ground, the Senate approved the President's request by only a narrow margin. The vote was 53 to 47. Eleven Democrats voted with the President and 11 Republicans voted against.

The Democrats who voted for it, with three exceptions, hailed from border states where constituent pressure to ``do something'' about the refugee problem from Central America is particularly strong. Thus the vote did not constitute the ringing bipartisan endorsement of the President's policy which GOP leaders had hoped to get. That means the Democratic leadership has a better chance of avoiding a presidential juggernaut in the House than it would have if the contra-aid vote had been stronger.

What happens next?

House members will vote on three contra-aid bills on April 15, all in the form of amendments to the supplemental appropriation bill for 1986.

One proposal is essentially the package the Senate approved: delivery of $75 million in military aid would be delayed for 90 days while negotiations were sought between the Sandinistas and the contras. The remaining $25 million would go immediately to the rebels for nonmilitary purposes, including food and defensive weapons. Further, the $75 million would be released at the end of the 90 days if the President certified that the Sandinistas had not negotiated in good faith.

Congress, if it disagrees, could pass a resolution blocking the funds. The President could then veto the resolution, and a two-thirds vote would be needed in both houses to override the veto.

Another proposal before the House will be the handiwork of opponents of military aid. It will stress a negotiated settlement and rule out any military assistance.

The third measure involves a compromise between the two positions along the lines of a plan put forward by Sen. James Sasser (D) of Tennessee.

The Sasser proposal would provide $30 million in nonmilitary aid immediately and postpone the issue of military assistance for six months, during which time the President would be required to hold direct talks with the Sandinistas. At the end of the six months Congress would decide what to do.

There are two sticking points on the compromise measure:

One is whether Congress, after a diplomatic effort at negotiation, should vote affirmatively to release the aid, or only vote negatively to stop the aid. The President supports the latter, i.e. automatic release of aid unless there's a negative vote by Congress; Democratic moderates back the former.

The second issue is whether the US should start direct talks with the Sandinistas, as opponents of administration policy call for, or whether such talks should come only after the Sandinistas agree to meet with the domestic opposition, including the contras, as the President advocates.

Because of the uncertainties surrounding the crisis, say Democratic lawmakers, the impact of the Senate vote has been lessened. ``I don't think it's going to be the boon to the President's cause that some might have hoped,'' says one House Democratic leader.

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