D'ej`a vu in US House over `contra' aid. Democrats still trying to attach strings to military assistance
Washington — After six weeks of often-excruciating deliberation, Congress is close to settling the ``contra'' aid issue, at least for this year. The House of Representatives is scheduled to take action today on President Reagan's request to extend $100 million in military and logistical support to the rebels fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista regime.
Observers expect approval of a military-aid package for the contras, with the only question whether it would be granted on the Reagan administration's terms. The Senate already has approved a measure acceptable to the President.
Military aid to the contras has previously been rejected by Congress each time the administration proposed it over the past five years. And critics of the administration's Central American policies still hope to attach effective conditions to the military-assistance bill now considered almost inevitable.
House members have already voted once on contra aid this year. A White House plan to extend $100 million in military and logistical support was narrowly defeated, 222 to 210, in an all-or-nothing vote on March 20. A week later a similar proposal squeaked by the Senate, 53 to 47.
A number of the House ``no'' votes, however, were cast by members who knew they would have an opportunity to vote for alternative aid packages of the type under consideration today. Thus, the decisive battle is being fought over the votes of a few dozen conservative and moderate Democrats who want to support the contras but hesitate to endorse the Reagan administration's Nicaraguan policies.
Several factors could make any victory for the Reagan administration a hollow one. The tone of congressional debate on the issue has been marked by enough acrimony and partisanship virtually to guarantee that the White House will not have the broad, bipartisan support it has sought for its contra-aid strategy.
Bitterness lingers among many Democrats over the steel-edged rhetoric that emanated from the White House shortly after the President sent his proposal to Congress Feb. 25. Though administration officials have stopped implying that contra aid opponents are soft on communism, some conservative Republican members have filled in the void.
Moreover, the President has failed to convince the majority of Democrats that his policy of aiding the contras to pressure the Nicaraguan government toward domestic and diplomatic reform will be successful, or that it will not lead to an escalation of United States military involvement in the region.
On paper at least, it would seem that two recent events -- last month's incursion into Honduras by Nicaraguan troops and the April 7 collapse of regional peace negotiations -- would have won some converts to the President's view.
But the effects of these incidents have been mixed, tending more than anything to reinforce the longstanding opinions on both sides of the debate.
A few doubts have sprung up around the circumstances of the Nicaraguan advance into Honduras.
Some lawmakers wonder whether an otherwise routine border skirmish with contras encamped inside Honduran territory was magnified by the administration to increase the already-flourishing anti-Sandinista sentiment in Congress just days before the Senate vote.
The ``Contadora'' talks being held by eight Central American nations broke up amid charges of Sandinista intransigence, although the negotiators issued a communiqu'e calling for an end to US support for the contras.
President Reagan, in an April 9 press conference, said the history of Contadora negotiations showed that Nicaragua would never stop subverting its neighbors or repressing its citizens ``unless the pressure on them continues.''
Part of the resistance to the President's plan stems from the aversion many lawmakers have for elements in the contra movement, including former members of the notorious national guard of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.
A number of lawmakers have begun investigations into allegations of corruption by some of the rebels, including charges that contra leaders have participated in gunrunning, drug smuggling, and terrorist activities.
If the House approves a contra aid package substantially in agreement with the one passed earlier by the Senate, the measure could be on the President's desk within the next few days.