Despite near-unanimous condemnation in Congress of Nicaragua's military incursion into Honduras, the Republican-ruled US Senate was having great difficulty late Wednesday trying to craft a compromise bill to provide aid to the `contras' fighting Managua's Sandinista regime. Failure of Republican leaders to gain Senate approval of the version they are backing might bode ill for its approval when the House once again takes up the matter next month.
Already some House Democrats, including majority whip Thomas S. Foley of Washington, have indicated that they remain totally opposed to any military aid for the rebels in Nicaragua.
At the same time, it was evident that the apparent effort by Nicaraguan forces to strike a preemptive blow at the contras shortly before the Senate vote had caused the Republicans to stick by their plan, which closely resembled the Reagan proposal to send $75 million in military aid and $25 million for ``humanitarian'' purposes to the anti-Sandinista rebels. The Republican Senate leadership refused to concede on several sticking points with Democrats critical of the President's proposal.
After three hours of negotiations yesterday, talks between Democratic and Republican leaders on a compromise aid package broke down in disagreement over the conditions under which military aid could be sent to the rebels and the diplomatic stance of the US toward Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas.
Partisans from both sides quickly made plans to introduce their own amendments to change the aid package in preparation for a final vote.
Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas has repeatedly said he would prefer to see clear and broad support on a compromise aid package from members of both parties rather than a narrow, partisan victory on the President's plan.
But Senator Dole told his colleagues shortly after noon yesterday that ``we were unable to agree'' on a compromise, leading to the prospect of a number of amendments being offered on the Senate floor.
The fact that compromise negotiations broke down underscores the apparent confidence of Republican leaders as they embarked on yesterday's deliberations.
``I think Ortega gave us a boost, and I hope they don't pull out today,'' commented Senator Dole before yesterday's session began, referring to Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega Savaadra and the presence of Nicaraguan troops in Honduras.
Both Dole and Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee rejected alterations to the President's proposal put forward by Democratic Sens. Richard C. Byrd, the minority leader, of West Virginia, and James Sasser of Tennessee. Senator Byrd insisted that Congress vote to send military aid to the contras only after a 90-day waiting period for negotiations with the Sandinista government to be attempted.
Senators Dole and Lugar, along with Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, introduced a version of the aid package that closely followed the Reagan administration's plan. It called for the immediate release of $25 million for defensive weapons to the contras and a 90-day waiting period to allow diplomatic efforts at a negotiated settlement to continue.
After July 1, the President would be allowed to distribute the remaining aid unless Congress voted no.
The Nicaraguans have repeatedly rejected any suggestions of direct negotiations with the rebels.