House Democrats push new plan for `contra' aid
Washington — Democrats yesterday unveiled a detailed position against funding contras fighting the Marxist government in Nicaragua. The new Democratic plan is essentially a more specific version of a proposal that was defeated, along with every other measure on Nicaragua, in April. It would provide $14 million for refugees in Central America through international relief agencies. But it would ban aid for contra fighting units.
Democrats urge resolution of Central American unrest by negotiations, but are keeping an open door for the President to seek additional aid for contras after Oct. 1, if peace efforts fail.
House members cite a new Louis Harris poll that finds Americans opposed to sending the rebels $14 million in aid, as requested by the Reagan administration, by an overwhelming margin of 73 to 23 percent.
Despite that finding, the Reagan administration appears to be winning its effort to overturn a vote last month in the House. ``I know there's a great deal of skepticism about whether we can pass this alternative,'' said Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D) of Maryland yesterday as Democrats made public their new proposal on Nicaragua.
Many Democrats have been deeply embarrassed by Nicaragua's Marxist President, Daniel Ortega, who traveled to Moscow just after the earlier House vote to reject aid for rebels in his country. ``It certainly had a negative effect,'' Rep. David E. Bonior (D) of Michigan told reporters yesterday. He added, ``I think we're beyond that now.''
Republican House whip Trent Lott of Mississippi, in an interview, said he was optimistic that the Reagan administration would prevail when the House votes, probably next Thursday, on contra aid. ``I think they're good,'' he said of prospects for passing a Republican plan in the House. The Republican alternative to give ``nonlethal'' aid to contras lost by only two votes in the earlier vote.
GOP members and conservative Democrats met yesterday in a private session to work out a revised proposal. Rep. Buddy Roemer (D) of Louisiana, one of the participants, said he expected the plan to provide about $42 million for the rebels, $14 million this year and $28 million in 1986, as sought by the Reagan administration. Participants in the closed-door session cautioned that the total might be slightly less, however.
A top Republican aide confirmed that the Republican plan would call for giving funds directly to the contra units. He also said the GOP would at a ``minimum'' allow the Central Intelligence Agency to ``provide an exchange of information'' with the contras.
The issue of CIA restrictions could be a major sticking point when the Nicaragua resolution reaches the floor as an amendment to a supplemental spending bill. Existing law, known as the Boland Amendment, forbids federal agencies to support any military or paramilitary group in Nicaragua.
Several members of Congress, including Senate Intelligence Committee chairman David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota, have sought to give the CIA a freer hand in intelligence in Nicaragua.
Any effort to make major changes in the Boland Amendment would probably meet stiff opposition in the House.
Laurie Duker, a lobbyist for the peace group SANE, said support for the provision could defeat contra aid, if the two were tied together. ``I think that's our best case,'' she said.
``People might be willing to go for one year of humanitarian aid'' to contras, she said, but she doubted that the House would weaken the Boland prohibitions.
The Reagan administration has already called upon some heavy political artillery in the aid dispute.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz said last week that congressional failure to grant contra aid was ``hastening the day when we will be faced with an agonizing choice about the use of American combat troops'' in Central America.
Both sides can be expected to use the threat of American military involvement as the keystone of the debate over aiding contras, especially since polls report clear unease among the public on that subject.
The Harris poll found that 81 percent of the general public is ``concerned that the US will end up sending American troops to fight Nicaragua.'' -- 30 --