A foray by Nicaraguan troops into Honduras has pushed the bitter debate over US policy in Central America back to the top of the congressional agenda. The Nicaraguan government's action, coupled with President Reagan's subsequent order to deploy four United States Army battalions to a Honduran air base, has provided conservative lawmakers with new ammunition in their fight for a further infusion of military support to Nicaragua's contra rebels.
``I believe this incursion is in direct response to Congress's cutoff of aid to the contras,'' said Senate Intelligence Committee chairman David Boren (D) of Oklahoma after a briefing by Reagan administration officials. ``The Sandinistas looked at what Congress had done, took it as a green light to crush the contras, said, `Thank you very much,' and went after them.''
At the same time, events of the past few days have put the contras' congressional opponents on the defensive. Many of them suspect that the magnitude of the Sandinista action has been exaggerated by an administration eager to frighten wavering lawmakers into supporting more contra aid.
``We've heard the administration crying, `Wolf! Wolf!' before,'' said Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. ``I don't know that they're not crying `Wolf' now.''
Similarly, these lawmakers question the motivations behind the White House decision to deploy US troops in the region. ``I know of nothing that justifies sending troops,'' said House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas.
``It's very difficult to connect this response to any border crossing. They're 120 miles away,'' added House majority leader Thomas Foley (D) of Washington.
Democratic leaders are miffed that White House chief of staff Howard Baker, national-security adviser Colin Powell, and Secretary of State George Shultz told them at a briefing Wednesday that news reports of a decision to dispatch units of the 82nd Airborne Division to Honduras were false. Later that evening, Speaker Wright and others were notified of the deployment at a Democratic fund-raising dinner by reporters seeking their reaction.
``I don't think they deliberately set out to deceive us,'' Mr. Wright said. ``I just don't think they know what they're doing.''
Under the terms of the War Powers Resolution, the administration is required to inform congressional leaders of troop deployments only if those troops have been dispatched to areas where hostilities are imminent. But White House officials have taken pains to assure lawmakers that the troops, stationed at the Palmerola Air Base in Honduras, will remain far from the Bakay Valley border region where Nicaraguan troops have attacked contra forces. Thus, they say, the resolution's restrictions do not apply. Moreover, they insist, the decision to deploy troops was reached after the briefing.
Some Democrats believe, however, that the administration purposefully avoided their counsel, seeking instead to surprise Democrats with a fait accompli.
The administration's goal in deploying the troops, they contend, has little to do with protecting Honduras from a possible Sandinista invasion. Instead, they suggest that White House officials are seeking to compensate for the Feb. 29 cutoff of contra aid. By this line of reasoning, the direct deployment of US troops constitutes a symbolic measure designed to boost contra morale, intimidate the Sandinistas as they prepare to sit down for cease-fire talks next week with contra leaders, and suggest that the alternative to the contras and contra aid is the direct intervention of US forces.
``What we have seen in the last few weeks is not an effort to inform Congress but a public relations campaign aimed at the media,'' complained Rep. Tony Coelho (D) of California, the House majority whip.
Nevertheless, Democrats have not condemned the action outright. ``Well, I ... what can I say,'' exclaimed an exasperated Wright when reporters pressed him for his opinion of the deployment. ``I just don't know enough to pass judgment on this,'' said Representative Foley.
Republicans, meanwhile, are demanding a congressional reconsideration of the contra aid question. ``The blood bath may render moot next week's cease-fire talks,'' said Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, suggesting that the Sandinista move could deliver a knockout blow to contra forces. ``Does it make sense to cut off aid to the freedom fighters in the face of the Sandinista offensive?''