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Reagan Gambles on Contras Aid Victory

March 12, 1986|ELEANOR CLIFT and DON SHANNON | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Reagan plans to hang tough and gamble for an all-out victory next week when the House votes on his $100-million package of aid to Nicaraguan rebels, but if he fails to muster a majority, he will offer to compromise with the Senate, White House strategists said Tuesday.

In a speech to regional newspaper editors, Reagan described talk of compromise as "the usual temper-rising and quibbles" that accompany major congressional decisions and insisted that any delay or reduction in proposed aid could be "too little, too late."

Although some Administration officials have quietly explored fall-back positions with congressional leaders, a White House adviser confirmed that Reagan will continue his push for a clear-cut victory in the House and postpone any compromise gestures until they are absolutely necessary.

Oval Office Meetings

Reagan spent much of Monday and Tuesday arguing his case in Oval Office meetings with reluctant congressmen. The President will continue to press the issue through the week, culminating in a nationwide televised address Sunday evening on the importance of aiding the contras , as the Nicaraguan rebels are known.

White House officials said that Reagan's strenuous lobbying is beginning to pay off and that key congressmen are moving to support the aid package. They believe that a winning coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats is still a long shot but "do-able" in the critical House vote, scheduled for March 19.

House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who said he is "bitterly opposed" to Reagan's request, said that a head count showed last week that the aid proposal would be defeated by 25 votes. But he acknowledged that the President has "awesome" powers to persuade members to change their minds.

The flurry of speculation that the White House would make immediate concessions was set off by Reagan's suggestion Sunday that he would be "willing to see what someone offers" by way of compromise if his aid package should fail in the House. But White House spokesman Larry Speakes insisted Monday that Reagan was not interested in "any halfway measures."

Likely Scenario

Still, the likely scenario is that Reagan will lose in the House but that he will come closer than anyone expected, one adviser said. At that point, Reagan would be ready to negotiate possible restrictive conditions, such as placing the $70-million military aid portion of his $100-million package in escrow for a limited time to give peace talks one more chance.

Meanwhile, controversy surrounded another aspect of Reagan's aid bill that would lift restrictions on the CIA to allow the use of secret contingency funds to assist the contras. White House spokesman Edward P. Djerejian denied that the Administration plans to use that money as "a secret slush fund" and pointed out that "every cent that's spent from that fund has to be made accountable" to congressional intelligence committees.

Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, which investigated the matter, warned that the change in procedure would give the CIA a free hand in funding the contras, possibly providing far more money than the $100 million in Reagan's aid package.

In addition, questions mounted about the disposition of the $27 million in humanitarian aid that Reagan won for the contras last year. California Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey) and five other House Democrats on Tuesday introduced a resolution calling on Reagan to provide proof of how the Administration spent $7.5 million of that aid.

Panetta charged at a news conference that the money was deposited in a Miami bank account with no audit trail showing where it went and no record indicating that the contras had received any of the goods it was supposed to provide.

Times staff writer Sara Fritz contributed to this story.

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