The abrupt turnabout on aiding rebel fighters in Nicaragua shows deep ambivalence in the House of Representatives about Central America policy. Congress has not shed its opposition to military involvement, but the lawmakers are also determined to do something to counter the Marxist Sandinistas who govern Nicaragua.
Feelings against the Sandinistas have grown even stronger since Nicaragua president Daniel Ortega Saavedra made a publicized trip to Moscow just after the House voted in April to deny aid for counterrevolutionaries. That trip was ``contemptuous nose-thumbing,'' said Rep. Thomas S. Foley of Washington, Democratic whip.
Both House and Senate have now voted to send food, clothing, medicine, intelligence information, and an approving nod to the anti-Sandinista forces, known as contras. The House reversed its April position and voted $27 million for the contras on Wednesday by a big margin of 64. The House provision prohibits the Central Intelligence Agency from distributing the contra aid. The Senate plan calls for $38 million in aid and allows the CIA a role in distributing it.
President Reagan had to make concessions to win over the Democratic House. He stated publicly that he had no plans to overthrow the Nicarguan government and that he would be willing to talk with the Sandinistas on certain conditions.
``We do not seek the military overthrow of the Sandinista government or to put in its place a government based on supporters of the old Somoza regime,'' Reagan said in a letter to a member of the House Intelligence Committee this week.
Underlying the President's compromises is the widespread concern found both in public-opinion polls and in Congress about American soldiers fighting in Central America.
Despite presidential promises not to invade, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. told reporters Thursday, ``I've always said he [President Reagan] wasn't going to be happy until he has the marines and the rangers in there.'' The Massachusetts Democrat vowed to ``press to keep the American boys out of there.''
House minority leader Robert H. Michel, who led the successful fight for contra aid, gave an emotional response to his opponents on warmongering charges. ``You say you are afraid of having American boys dying in Central America,'' said the Illinois Republican during the debate. ``Well, so are we.''
He also said to his opponents, ``You tell us we should talk, but communists never listen to talk unless it is backed up by force or threat of force.''
Backers of aid to contras argue that helping the anticommunist forces now will save the United States from military involvement. ``If we give that assistance now, we will never have to send troops later,'' said Rep. Richard K. Armey (R) of Texas shortly before the House vote.
The House vote this week continues the ban on military aid for rebel forces around Nicaragua. However, it lifts the so-called Boland Amendment, allowing the CIA to share information with the contras.
On four previous occasions the House had voted to deny any American aid to forces trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
An effort to keep that provision, named for its sponsor Rep. Edward Boland (D) of Massachusetts, failed in the House Wednesday. Speaker O'Neill predicted the Boland Amendment would not be reinstated before it expires next Oct. 1, although the prohibition could be reinstated as part of the intelligence authorization bill.
Democrats and Republicans traced the abrupt switch on Nicaragua to several factors including nervousness among Southern Democrats about being seen as soft on communism. ``They think Reagan is supreme'' in the South, said O'Neill, who also pointed to the Republican political gains in the southern states.