By a vote of 222 to 210 the United States House of Representatives gave a thumbs-down to President Reagan's plan to extend $100 million in miliary and humanitarian aid to the ``contras'' fighting Nicaragua's leftist government. In doing so, lawmakers also served up a major political victory to House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, who had led the fight against contra aid. Though President Reagan has lost a battle, he may yet win the war to bolster the military fortunes of the contras.
Before yesterday's much-ballyhooed vote on President Reagan's request to extend $100 million in military and humanitarian aid to ``contras'' fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista regime, one point had already become clear to many lawmakers:
By the time the 99th Congress is relegated to history, US military and humanitarian aid to the rebels, as sought by Mr. Reagan, will have been approved. Defeat or victory in the House yesterday carried relatively little significance in the final analysis.
The President, it is generally felt, will ultimately emerge the winner in his drive to bolster the military fortunes of US-backed rebels. The Reagan contra-aid proposal goes to the Republican-controlled Senate next, where it has encountered considerably less antagonism than in the House.
A compromise package between Senate, House, and administration is virtually assured.
Indeed, congressional sources from both sides of the aisle, contacted shortly before yesterday's vote, agreed that a surprise presidential victory would be political gravy on the main course of President Reagan's Central American strategy.
``Win or lose, he comes out ahead,'' said Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R) of Iowa. Mr. Tauke, a leader of the so-called ``92 group'' -- an informal coalition of moderate Republicans, voted against the Reagan plan with ``misgivings.''
``If he wins in the House, well then he's home free,'' Mr. Tauke said before the vote. ``If he loses in the House, then there's plenty of time to compromise.''
Despite some momentum in favor of the White House after the President's nationally televised plea Sunday night for congressional support for his aid proposal, the wisdom accumulating over the past two days pointed to a narrow presidential defeat. Nevertheless, White House officials seemed to recognize that the thrust of the congressional debate was on Reagan's side.
In recognition of this fact, House Speaker O'Neill promised votes on other alternative military and humanitarian aid packages in April if the lawmakers defeated the President's plan yesterday. The counteroffer caused some grumbling among Republican members, who said it proved the Speaker had been politicizing the contra issue as a way to ``bash'' the Reagan administration.
Last year a hotly contested issue in the debate over a previous presidential request for contra aid was whether or not it was desirable that the Sandinstas hold power in Nicaragua. This year, amid mounting evidence of widespread political repression and human rights violations by the Sandinista government, nearly every lawmaker is on record as expressing distaste for the Nicarguan regime, regardless of their feelings about United States support for the contras.
Partly because of this, the nature of the debate on contra aid changed as well. Last year, Congress was finally compelled begrudgingly to reverse an earlier decision and extend $27 million in non-military ``humanitarian'' aid to the rebels. The vote came shortly after Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra trekked to Moscow to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Debate on the floor of the House this week showed that the issue continues to polarize the representatives, with many of them finding the contras a poor alternative to the Sandinistas.
Yet, this year, the mainstream of congressional debate has not centered on the question of whether or not to extend humanitarian aid to the contras -- or, for that matter, to offer military assistance. The key questions have revolved around the issues of how much, and to what extent, aid should be linked to progress on a negotiated settlement between the Central American players. The contrast between the present debate and last year's seems all the more remarkable when seen in the light of current congressional budgetary concerns.
Opponents of contra aid have tried to make much of the fact that the President is asking to spend $100 million on a controversial foreign policy venture while congressional budgeteers are trying to trim more than $38 billion from next year's budget. Yet that argument does not seem to have caught fire.
``There's been a realization that things have gotten seriously out of hand down there, that there are forces fighting communism that need our help,'' said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D) of Texas, a supporter of the President's package who voted for the contra aid package.