President-elect George Bush and leaders of Congress appear to be laying the groundwork for a new and bipartisan approach to the Nicaraguan problem, which has long bedeviled the Reagan administration. Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D) of Texas says he is hopeful the new administration and Congress can work together to develop a new policy. He said he bases that hope on conversations with Mr. Bush, incoming Secretary of State James Baker III, and others.
``We have discussed, though not in great detail, a way in which we could jointly find a new path on which we could walk hand in hand,'' Speaker Wright told reporters at a breakfast meeting yesterday. ``I think the administration and the Congress ought to be on the same wavelength in regard to Central America, and I think it can be done without either side losing face or saying a mea culpa, that we can embark upon a new direction - perhaps one that relies more strongly upon negotiation involving carrots and sticks,'' he said.
The Washington Post reported this week that the Bush administration plans a new approach on Central America and will not submit an early request for military aid to the contra rebels. The Speaker said the report was ``probably correct.''
He also suggested that this was the time to seek Soviet cooperation in resolving the Nicaraguan question. The possibility of a mutual agreement not to send military supplies to Central America should be explored, he said.
``After all, the time seems to be arriving when we will not be sending military hardware to Afghanistan, when Soviet troops have withdrawn,'' he commented.
As Bush begins to shape his foreign policy agenda, a key question is whether he is prepared to leave the Sandinista government in power (as Ronald Reagan presumably was not) and separate out US security concerns from concerns about Nicaragua's internal politics. Independent specialists believe a negotiated settlement between the US and Nicaragua is possible if Bush can tolerate a government that is somewhat more open, but far from democratic.
``If the Bush people are prepared to move forward in resolving the security issues through negotiations with the Nicaraguans and the Soviets, and leave the internal structure up to internal political forces and external diplomatic pressures, a deal can be reached,'' says Peter Hakim, executive director of Inter-American Dialogue, a private policy group.
Both the Sandinistas and the incoming Bush administration have good reason to avoid confrontation and achieve a settlement, diplomatic observers say. The Sandinistas and the contra forces have severely battered each other in battle. The Nicaraguan economy is in desperate straits and Nicaraguans, no longer enthusiastic about their Marxist revolution, are streaming out of the country at an enormous rate.
Without a political settlement with the US, experts say, Nicaragua will not be able to shift resources to rebuilding its shattered economy - or ultimately, obtain American aid.
From the US standpoint, the contra leadership that Mr. Reagan doggedly supported is now fragmented. Some voices are calling on the contra leaders to return to Nicaragua and join the loyal opposition. Among the American public, too, there is increasing consensus that the military route cannot work.
Wright has played a conspicuous role in peacemaking efforts in Central America. Last year he joined with President Reagan in a statement announcing bipartisan objectives in Nicaragua and laying out the bases for negotiations.
But when President Oscar Arias S'anchez of Costa Rica and four other Central American leaders suddenly announced a peace plan in August 1987, Wright quickly supported it. This move, together with Wright's frequent meetings with Nicaraguan and other Central American figures, was criticized by the administration as overstepping his legislative role.
The Speaker acknowledges he may have crossed the line of executive responsibility ``without intending to.'' But he stresses that his involvement was at the administration's initiative, and stemmed from the many invitations he receives to meet with Central American leaders.