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`Contra' aid strategy backfires on House Republicans. Failure of GOP petition drive leaves next move to Democrats

By Peter OsterlundStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 1986



Washington

Aid to the ``contras'' fighting the Sandinista government of Nicaraqua is caught up in the parliamentary machinery of Congress.

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House Republicans last week failed in their attempt to use a parliamentary tactic called a ``discharge petition'' to force yet another vote May 12 on a proposal to provide some $100 million in ``humanitarian'' and military assistance to the rebels.

It is highly unlikely that lawmakers will get another chance to vote on the issue until mid-June.

That's bad news for President Reagan, who has repeatedly argued that the rebels in Nicaragua are in imminent danger of being crushed by military forces of the Sandinista government.

Even if the House does vote some sort of package -- and Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts apparently plans to permit another vote about June 9 on a Democratic alternative authored by Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) of Oklahoma -- it could get bogged down in negotiations with the Senate.

Some Republicans now privately predict that the President may not get his contra-aid package this year, if ever.

At one time the administration seemed to be within striking distance of winning House approval of a contra-aid plan. But when the vote was taken in April, the President's aid proposal lost by 12 votes.

When the Democrats attached the aid proposal to an unrelated spending bill the President had vowed to veto, the Republicans countered by managing, with the help of a few Democrats, to kill their own plan, preferring to seek a later vote on better terms.

The House Republicans had the ball, but they apparently have fumbled. GOP leaders had hoped to get 218 signatures -- a majority of the House -- on a petition to force a vote on a Senate-passed version of the contra-aid measure which was apparently acceptable to the White House. Under the rules, May 12 was the earliest possible date for a vote. Last Wednesday was the deadline for the petition, and the Republicans had only 159 signatures.

If the House votes next month on contra aid, it appears the bill will be attached to a military construction appropriations measure. And it is unlikely to be acceptable to the President.