Congress's debate over contras remains as aid runs out. Humanitarian aid planned, but policy on hold until next year

After 7 years, one of President Reagan's most cherished policies is ending not with a bang but a whimper. The policy is the one of aiding the Nicaraguan contra rebels, who have been locked in an inconclusive civil war with the country's ruling Sandinistas throughout the Reagan era.

``Humanitarian'' aid from the United States to the rebels formally ends today, though lawmakers are ready to grant the contras the funds that will keep them fed and clothed through March.

Still, the seesawing peace negotiations between the Sandinistas and contras have been almost as inconclusive as the war that necessitated them. And on Capitol Hill, members of Congress are eager to defer questions about the future of the contras and Nicaragua until next year - something that conservative contra supporters fret could effectively kill the rebel movement.

``There's just so much exhaustion on this issue; people are tired of it,'' says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. Adds Rep. Dave McCurdy (D) of Oklahoma: ``No one ever thought this would drag on for so long.''

Earlier this month, the Sandinistas and contras broke off discussions of new negotiations when neither could agree on a venue: The contras demanded a location outside of Nicaragua; the Sandinistas held out for Managua.

``I feel we have done everything we can do,'' sighs Alfredo C'esar,chief negotiator on the contra's ruling directorate. ``The fault does not lie with the resistance.''

Now, the question is what comes next. No further talks are scheduled or, apparently, even contemplated before Congress's anticipated mid-October adjournment. In the meantime, lawmakers are ready to pass a Democrat-authored package that will provide the contras with $27.1 million for food, clothing, and medicine.

The package also stipulates that the President may request congressional assent to the release of $16.5 million in authorized but undelivered military supplies - that is, if the Sandinistas' behavior is sufficiently provocative to win approval for the release. But, says one State Department official, ``short of a full-scale Sandinista invasion of Honduras'' where the contras are encamped, ``that just ain't going to happen.''

As a result, all sides in the contra aid debate are sitting quietly, waiting to see who wins the US presidential election. Contra representatives say they will accept whatever aid Congress deigns to give them and will wait for their fate to be decided by the next President.

Diplomatic observers predict that the Sandinistas will be careful to tred quietly in the region during the next few weeks, being careful not to take any actions that might strengthen the political hand of the contras and their conservative supporters in Washington.

Partisans of both sides of the issue observe, however, that time is on the Sandinistas' side. Some conservatives believe that the Sandinistas will move militarily to eliminate the contras after the elections. Others argue such an action won't be necessary - that the contras rag-tag fighting force will be weakened into oblivion during the coming months of inaction.

``Any troops that are not fighting, by definition, lose their day-by-day capability to fight,'' observes Mr. C'esar. Counters House Deputy Majority Whip David Bonior (D) of Michigan: ``What's new? The contras have never been a viable fighting force.''

Conservatives such as Senator McCain believe that the next President will have little choice but to pursue a ``containment'' policy toward Nicaragua: spending large sums of money to beef up the security of neighboring countries in the region and holding the direct threat of direct US military action over the Sandinistas.

``It's the kind of choice the contras have helped us avoid,'' McCain says.

Meanwhile, contra supporters find comfort in continued domestic unrest in Nicaragua and in the grim conviction that, in the words of one administration official, ``A lot of people are going to find themselves missing the contras when they're gone.''

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