Contras, Democrats move toward marriage of circumstance. Agreement would likely ensure approval of new aid package

In defiance of some members of the Reagan administration, leaders of the Nicaraguan contra rebels appear close to endorsing a Democratic proposal to supply their troops with funds for food, clothing, and medicine, but halt United States military support. Such an endorsement would virtually guarantee congressional passage of the $30.8 million Nicaraguan aid package that House Democrats unveiled last week. The Democrats' proposal offers $14.6 million over four months in ``sustenance'' aid to the contras and an additional $14.6 million for medical assistance to children who have been injured in Nicaragua's seven-year-old civil war. It also provides $1.4 million for humanitarian aid to Miskito and other Nicaraguan Indian groups. The package is scheduled to come to a vote in the House Thursday.

The contras' endorsement would also constitute an embarrassment for the Reagan administration and for House Republicans who are hurriedly drafting a competing $36.3 million package that would provide logistical and other quasi-military support to the rebels.

But the contras themselves say they are concerned that the emerging Republican proposal would fail to win a consensus, even if it attracted sufficient support to win congressional passage. The result, they say, might be to bring the bitter contra debate into the presidential campaign, even as the contras attempt to negotiate a cease-fire with Nicaragua's Sandanista government.

``We're trying not to get involved in the internal political battles of the US, especially in an election year,'' says Alfredo Cesar, a member of the contras' decisionmaking directorate. ``We don't want a package that will win by three or four votes. What we need now is an end to the legislative battle and the beginning of a package that will win as broad support as possible.''

Mr. Cesar's remarks, made during a telephone interview, underscore the odd sort of alliance that is forming between Democrats, who have previously opposed US support for the contras, and the rebels themselves, who have historically looked to President Reagan as their benefactor.

The alliance, if it can be called that, is a clear accident of circumstance. The Democratic majority in Congress and the contras have traditionally been at odds in the debate over Nicaragua's future. Both sides are being driven to a truce only because both perceive a need to end a divisive political battle over US Central American policy that threatened to hurt Democrats and, ultimately, prove fatal to the contras. Should the political currents surrounding the Central American peace process shift, the Democrats and the contras could just as easily reassume their adversarial roles.

But if this uneasy partnership lasts the week, it could have far-reaching implications, ushering in an era of congressional suzerainty over the US's Nicaraguan policy that would continue at least until President Reagan leaves office.

Indeed, contra leaders and members of Congress say that the Reagan administration relegated itself to a peripheral role on the Nicaraguan issue, when Congress rejected the administration request for $36 million in logistical and military contra aid.

After that vote on Feb. 3, House Democrats immediately set out to craft a contra aid package that would eschew military aid but provide the rebels with supplies necessary to maintain their status as a fighting force while cease-fire negotiations with Nicaragua's ruling Sandanistas were under way. Reagan administration officials counseled House Republicans not to participate in the Democrats' deliberations, but to wait and see what they came up with.

That strategy was opposed by some of the contra leaders themselves, says one State Department official, who was concerned that the Reagan administration had essentially given up hope of winning congressional support for military aid and had decided to press for an unrealistic package for political effect. ``It's a matter of being able to point to the Democrats and say: You lost Nicaragua,'' the official says.

Partly for that reason, and partly because the President's package had been defeated after House Speaker Jim Wright promised a chance to vote on a new, congressionally written contra aid package by the end of the month, Democratic leaders set out to come up with their own proposal. Despite pressures from some Reagan administration officials to oppose the Democrats' efforts, the contras informally communicated with lawmakers of both parties on a continuing basis.

``After the vote of Feb. 3, we found that the administration was basically not moving in any direction vis-`a-vis any package,'' recalls Cesar, noting that current aid appropriations expire today. ``So we told the administration in advance that we were going to work with moderate Democrats so that an appropriate package we could support would come out of that. That's exactly what we did.''

Last week, Cesar sent Democratic leaders a letter outlining three conditions for contra support of an aid package: that the aid be delivered by a ``credible US government delivery system''; that there be the guarantee of another vote on contra aid in June considering ``the overall situation'' in Nicaragua; and that funds be granted for communications equipment.

The Democratic measure provides for aid delivery by the Department of Defense, an agency Cesar says ``could'' be acceptable, and up to $1 million in aid for communications.

Republicans want aid to continue to be delivered by the Central Intelligence Agency. While the Democratic proposal does promise ``to consider'' a vote in June, it does not actually guarantee a vote, a fact that Republicans say renders it unacceptable.

Cesar said he had not had a chance to study the proposal and so could not comment on that element of it. An aide close to the Democrats' deliberations said that provision did not, in itself, constitute an obstacle. ``If that's the only problem he has, we can take care of it.''

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