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U.S. Moves to Reshape Leadership of Contras : Conservatives Force Suspension of Talks on Aid Compromise

March 13, 1986|SARA FRITZ and ELEANOR CLIFT | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Under pressure from conservative Republicans, White House officials Wednesday suspended behind-the-scenes talks with congressional leaders on a compromise on President Reagan's request for military aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.

At the same time, to counter the charge that he is shunning a diplomatic solution in Central America, the President dispatched diplomatic troubleshooter Philip C. Habib to El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala. Nicaragua is not on Habib's itinerary, Reagan said, because "you don't go where you're not invited."

Won't Consider Changes

As Habib left for Central America, White House spokesman Larry Speakes insisted that the President would not consider any changes proposed in Congress to his original proposal requesting $30 million in humanitarian aid and $70 million in unrestricted military assistance for the Nicaraguan rebels, known as contras .

"We're not interested in anything short of getting the President's package approved without restrictions," Speakes said. He added that Reagan "doesn't want any halfway measures--they haven't worked before and won't work now."

To demonstrate the President's firmness, White House officials canceled a scheduled meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) to discuss a possible compromise on military aid.

Such meetings had been intended to produce a compromise to be offered in the Senate should Reagan fail to win outright approval of his package in a House vote scheduled for next Wednesday. Without a compromise, according to leaders of both parties, the President's plan now lacks sufficient support in both the House and the Senate.

The meeting with Lugar and Nunn was canceled after House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) complained to the White House that negotiations on a compromise were undermining his attempts to win the scheduled House vote.

Sources said that Michel intervened on behalf of Republicans who want to use the vote as a "litmus test" of their conservative credentials in their election campaigns against liberal Democrats in November.

Bowing to the President's refusal to consider a compromise at this juncture, Lugar canceled a scheduled Foreign Relations Committee meeting at which a vote was to be taken on the issue today. Aides said that only five of the 17 members of the Republican-controlled committee supported the President's proposal, and the meeting was canceled "to preserve the consensus" for a compromise in the Senate after the House vote.

Urges Call on Allies

Mark Helmke, Lugar's press secretary, said the senator has suggested that the President call on U.S. allies in the region--who will be meeting in May--to challenge the Nicaraguan government to call elections for a constituent assembly, reduce the size of the military and stop supplying arms to leftist rebels in El Salvador. In exchange, he said, the President could offer to halt aid to the contras.

But Helmke quickly added: "Lugar is not working on any compromise right now."

A senior White House aide said that the President hopes Habib's mission will quiet critics in Congress who are demanding assurances that the Administration will seek a diplomatic solution.

"You couldn't have a stronger demonstration of the President's commitment to seeking a negotiated settlement than to have someone of Phil Habib's stature going down there," he said.

The official admitted that Administration operatives have been "meeting and talking with people on the Hill" to take into account their concerns for a possible compromise after the House vote. But he added, "We're not going to do anything that transfuses two pints of blood into a patient losing three."

Calls for Delay, Talks

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) sent a letter to the President suggesting a number of steps that could be taken independently by the Administration to help win votes for military aid. His proposal called for a 90-day delay in the expenditure of military aid for everything except training and defensive weapons, with a simultaneous effort to renew negotiations between Nicaragua and other countries in the region and a revamping of the contra forces with particular emphasis on respecting the human rights of citizens.

Asked if the President would agree to a delay in dispensing the aid, Speakes replied: "There's always a time lapse between the time the legislation is approved and the time you can put it in the field, but the President wants no restrictions. . . . He doesn't want his hands tied."

As Reagan bid farewell to Habib in the White House driveway, the President was asked if he could support a delay of 60 or 75 days in his aid package to allow time for negotiations. "We're continuing to talk about all possibilities like that," he replied.

But Speakes cautioned: "He meant that we're on the Hill talking about gathering votes for our proposal. From time to time people bring things up. We listen. That's it."

Denounced by Ortega

In Managua, Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega said Wednesday that the mere discussion of U.S. military aid to the contras is "illegal and immoral."

Ortega, who was commenting on the aid request for the first time since the Administration began its current concerted effort to win congressional approval, told reporters that the naming of Habib as special envoy is window-dressing.

"The United States is trying to impress the international community that they are interested in a negotiated solution," he said. "So they send this man who has fame as a negotiator, to give the impression that they are interested in negotiations. But it is no more than a resource to complement their terrorist policy, their war policy."

Times staff writer Marjorie Miller, in Managua, contributed to this article.

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