SANTA BARBARA — President Reagan pleaded with Congress on Saturday to spend "just a few minutes worth" of the taxpayers' money to help the rebels fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua.
Reagan, vacationing at his nearby fog-bound mountaintop ranch, used his weekly Saturday radio address to lobby for congressional release of $14 million to aid the rebels, whom he calls "freedom fighters."
The President combined his appeal on behalf of the rebels with a strong defense of the controversial budget compromise he approved last Thursday. That agreement with Senate Republicans, aimed at reducing the federal deficit by $296 billion over three years, features a cutback in cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients and an annual 3% after-inflation hike in military spending.
'Every Few Minutes'
"You know, the federal government these days spends $14 million every few minutes," Reagan told his radio audience. "So we're asking Congress for just a few minutes-worth of help for the democratic forces of Nicaragua. Fourteen million dollars means very little to us. But it's a whole world to them."
The federal government spends $14 million every eight minutes, based on a recent projection by the Senate Budget Committee of $949 billion in total expenditures for the current fiscal year.
Reagan faces what his senior advisers regard as his toughest congressional fight of the year when the Senate, on April 23, and the House, by April 30, vote on the $14-million aid package for the Nicaraguan rebels, generally known as contras.
Under a new cease-fire proposal announced by Reagan last Thursday, the $14 million would be used only for food, clothing and medicine--not guns and ammunition--as long as the Nicaragua government held peace talks with the contras.
Administration officials, speaking on condition they not be identified, said Saturday that the President's advisers are deeply split over how Reagan should fight for his plan.
Public Campaign Urged
One faction, led by Patrick Buchanan, the Administration's conservative communications director, is arguing that Reagan should go all-out publicly, with a nationally televised address and several major speeches, to sell his policy to the American people, who then presumably would pressure Congress.
But another faction, led by longtime Reagan confidant Michael K. Deaver, is insisting that the public is too skittish and confused about the Administration's Nicaraguan policy and that the best use of the President's time before the two key votes is to lobby congressmen individually.
The official said Reagan will not decide on which course to take until after he returns to Washington next Sunday.
Democrats, in their weekly response to his radio address, accused Reagan of ignoring an economic problem they said equals the severity of the budget deficit: the ballooning U.S. trade deficit, which last year reached a record of more than $123 billion.
"'We need your leadership, Mr. President, if we are to meet this important challenge," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), speaking for his party.
Bingaman warned that as the United States loses ground in international markets, it stands to lose both its industrial base and "'the skills that go along with a productive society."
He called for a policy aimed at reducing the trade deficit and lowering the inflated value of the dollar, which many economists say is making U.S. products too expensive to compete on overseas markets. He also urged the Administration to press other countries to lower their trade barriers to a level no higher than the barriers the United States puts on foreign products entering U.S. markets.
Reagan plans to entertain family members at his isolated ranch today and pass up going to church on Easter. "He'll worship in his heart," said White House spokesman Larry Speakes.