WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday dealt a major setback to President Reagan's policy in Central America by effectively killing all current legislative efforts to provide $14 million in aid of any type to rebels fighting the leftist Nicaraguan government.
Nearly two weeks of legislative skirmishing in both the House and Senate ended when the House voted 303 to 123 against a Democratic proposal after earlier defeating by only two votes a Republican plan that had been endorsed by Reagan.
Democratic leaders hailed the voting as a victory for their party--even though it was their own proposal that was defeated in the end.
"It's a clear signal to the Administration that it should reassess its military approach to the situation in Nicaragua," Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) said. "Their policy does not have the support of the Congress. Their policy does not have the support of the American people."
Humanitarian Aid Defeated
Barnes was a co-sponsor of the defeated Democratic alternative, which would have provided $10 million in humanitarian aid to Nicaraguan refugees as well as $4 million to encourage peace talks in the region. It would have allowed no direct aid to the rebels, as sought by Reagan.
The Republican proposal, sponsored by House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) and defeated 215 to 213, would have given the Agency for International Development $14 million to supply humanitarian aid directly to the rebels, known as contras .
The outcome indicated that House members were dissatisfied with both options--even though they had voted 219 to 206 earlier in the day in favor of Barnes' proposal. On Tuesday night, the House also had killed a contra aid measure that had been passed hours earlier by the Senate.
Disappointed by Defeat
Reagan said that he was "deeply disappointed by the House defeat of the bipartisan consensus reached (Tuesday) in the Senate." In a statement released by the White House, the President added:
"Notwithstanding (Wednesday's) votes, I intend to return to the Congress again and again to seek a policy that supports peace and democracy in Nicaragua. . . . Our friends in Central America look to us for help against totalitarianism."
Republicans in Congress were not accepting Wednesday's votes as a defeat. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) asserted that Reagan came out of this battle with a potent political issue to be used against the Democrats in the 1986 congressional elections.
"My sense is that there will be a number of Democrats who don't want to be tarred and feathered as boosters" of Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista regime, Lugar said.
In addition, House Assistant Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said that the Republicans would come back soon with another proposal for aid to the contras, "if not in this fiscal year, than again in 1986." The Administration has already requested $28 million for the contras in fiscal 1986, which begins Oct. 1.
"I'm sure the Democrats are breaking out the champagne, but the issue is not over," said Lott. "This is one small skirmish in a rolling, running battle."
But Lugar predicted that the President may be forced to forgo any Nicaraguan aid measure during the current fiscal year while Republicans work to fashion legislation that would be acceptable to Congress.
At the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes indicated that if no money is appropriated for the contras, the President has no intention of keeping the promises he made in a letter to the Senate on Tuesday night. Among other things, the letter promised that the President would initiate bilateral talks with the Nicaraguan government.
"The President's letter is contingent on passage of some resolution," Speakes said.
O'Neill Offer Reported
Barnes disclosed that earlier in the day, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) had given the President an opportunity to avoid the embarrassment of a defeat on the House floor. O'Neill is a staunch opponent of aid to the contras.
According to Barnes, Reagan had telephoned O'Neill to seek assurances that the Speaker would keep his promise to allow all Democrats to "vote their consciences" on the issue. During the conversation, O'Neill offered to cancel the vote entirely or delay it for several weeks. The President rejected the offer.
By reminding the House of O'Neill's pledge, Michel managed to persuade 46 Democrats to vote for his proposal. "I would say for this occasion, damn the politics, let's do what's right for the country," he told them.
But while Michel failed to get sufficient bipartisan support for his own plan, he had no trouble winning Democratic votes to kill Barnes' measure. A total of 141 Democrats joined with 162 Republicans on the final vote.
Barnes contended that the Republican proposal would have allowed the Administration to buy weapons for the contras, even though Michel insisted that it was a "bald-faced lie." To make his case, Michel produced a letter from the President pledging strict accountability for the expenditure of funds.
Republicans argued strongly that Barnes' proposal for refugee assistance would do nothing to put pressure on the Sandinista regime to make peace with the rebels.
"What is this alternative?" asked Lott during the floor debate. "Not very much."
The Republicans also ridiculed the $4-million appropriation proposed by the Democrats to encourage the so-called Contadora negotiations between Nicaragua and four other Latin American nations. Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) joked that "it provides wholly unneeded money for diplomatic cocktail parties in the Contadora process."