Approval of contra aid paves way for budget compromise. DOWN TO THE WIRE

After a year of posturing and cajoling, of threatening and bargaining, congressional leaders are crossing the ``t's'' and dotting the ``i's'' on legislation to cut the federal budget deficit by $30.2 billion in fiscal year 1988, which began Oct. 1. True to style, the bargaining among themselves and with White House officials has been hardball to the last. Technically, the federal government went broke Saturday as House and Senate negotiators worked to resolve the differences blocking passage of legislation to carry out the budget compromise achieved last month. Federal agency heads prepared to begin sending employees home Monday in the event that the nation's political leaders were unable to iron things out by the start of the work week.

By yesterday afternoon, however, it appeared the federal government would stay in business after all. Late Saturday, congressional leaders and senior administration officials reached ``an agreement in principle'' on a short-term continuation of aid to the Nicaraguan contras, one of the chief stumbling blocks to an agreement. On Sunday, negotiators tackled disagreements over postal and medical care programs. Participants predicted these disputes would be resolved in time to pass the spending bill Monday. In the meantime, Congress was poised to pass emergency stop-gap spending last night.

The contra aid proposal is part of a $606 billion bill to finance most federal programs. The aid package includes only $8.1 billion in nonlethal support - a fraction of the funds President Reagan wanted. But its acceptance by Democrats is a minor victory for the administration.

For Republicans, the central issue was the continued delivery of previously authorized military aid to the contras, particularly if the ongoing Central American peace process were to collapse in mid-January when a cease-fire is scheduled to take place. ``The point is to maintain the contras as a viable force until the direction of the peace process is clear,'' says House Republican Whip Dick Cheney of Wyoming.

A number of Democrats opposed any additional aid installments for the contras, regardless of the purpose. Many more of them opposed any package that provided funds for the delivery of lethal weapons to the rebels, even if Congress had approved the delivery of the weapons at an earlier time.

President Reagan, however, pledged to veto the entire spending bill if it did not include funds to transport weapons. With legislators anxious to leave town, a deal was cut.

Under the agreement, military aid previously authorized by Congress could be delivered alongside ``humanitarian'' aid until Jan. 12. During the next week, at which time Central American presidents are scheduled to meet on the regional peace process, all military shipments would halt. If President Reagan then determines that the cease-fire has failed as a result of bad faith on the part of Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas, the shipments could resume. They would cease once again on Feb. 4, however, pending the outcome of a scheduled congressional vote on whether to continue combined deliveries of nonlethal and military aid.

On Monday, the Monitor reported that the proposed US aid package to the Nicaraguan contras totals $8.1 billion. It should have read $8.1 million.

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