WASHINGTON — The House, in a major foreign-policy defeat for President Reagan, today rejected his request for $100 million in aid for the contra rebels fighting the Marxist-led Nicaraguan government.
The vote was 222 to 210 against the aid package. A total of 206 Democrats and 16 Republicans voted against the Administration while 46 Democrats and 164 Republicans voted in favor of the aid.
The House Democratic leadership overcame an intense effort by Reagan to secure the aid that included a nationally broadcast speech four days ago, last-minute telephone calls and face-to-face meetings today with wavering members, and--critics said--promises of bridges, roads and other benefits.
The vote represented Reagan's most serious foreign-policy setback in Congress during his more than five years in office. But it does not mean that Reagan's efforts to win renewed U.S. military aid to the contras are dead.
To woo votes away from Reagan, the House Democratic leaders promised a new round of votes April 15 on a range of alternatives for aiding the contras.
Some Aid Expected
Key Democrats have acknowledged privately that Congress is almost certain to approve some form of aid for the rebels fighting to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist government.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said following the vote that Reagan will press "again and again until this battle is won, until freedom is given the chance that it deserves in Nicaragua."
Today's vote followed strong speeches by House Republican leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, who supported the aid, and House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.) in opposition. O'Neill called it a "matter of conscience, not a matter of politics" and blasted those in the Administration who questioned the patriotism of those against the aid.
The contra aid issue has been described as one of the most important foreign-aid votes since the Tonkin Gulf resolution that escalated U.S. participation in the Vietnam War. The White House and some Republicans suggested a vote against the package would be a vote for the communists and O'Neill predicted the aid package eventually would involve the United States in a war in Central America.
GIs 'in After Election'
"In my judgment, the White House will not be happy until it gets (troops) into Nicaragua," O'Neill said just before the vote. "In my heart, I fear American boys will be in there after the (November) election. I'm doing all in my power (to stop it) because I think it is wrong."
Michel responded to O'Neill: "Today, you're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong."
Both the White House and the Democratic leadership maneuvered for votes Wednesday and early today drawing the opposing sides so close as to make the outcome too close to call before the vote.
Trying to secure undecided votes, Reagan offered Wednesday to restrict use of the money to "defensive" anti-aircraft weapons, training and logistics for the first 90 days while pressing for a negotiated settlement.
Can Vote on Alternatives
O'Neill told wavering Democrats they could vote on alternatives to Reagan's plan April 15 if the President's request was defeated.
In the debate before the vote today, Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Latin America, said, "The Congress should loud and clear say today there is a better alternative to war in Central America."
However, Rep. William S. Broomfield of Michigan, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Reagan's proposal represented "a carrot and stick approach" that would force Nicaragua's Sandinista government to negotiate.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Republican leader Bob Dole said that chamber may delay its vote on the aid until after the Easter recess, which begins at the close of business March 27. Originally, the Senate had been scheduled to vote next week.
Aid Stopped in 1984
Congress cut off military aid to the contras in October, 1984, after press reports revealed the CIA had been actively engaged in the war against Nicaragua. A $27-million allotment of humanitarian aid was approved last year, but that money runs out March 31.
Reagan's offer to delay most of the contra aid was contingent on the House and the Senate passing the full $100-million package, blending $70 million in weapons and $30 million in other supplies over an 18-month period.
But the President reserved the right to release all the funds before the 90-day period was up if he decided the Sandinistas were not negotiating in good faith, a condition that may have limited its appeal among the undecided.
Reagan lobbied wavering lawmakers up to the last minute with telephone calls, urging the House members, in the words of White House spokesman Larry Speakes, "to set aside partisan politics, to support the commitment to a democratic outcome in Nicaragua."
Classic Pressure Applied
Sources on Capitol Hill said the Administration used all the classic political pressure points--such as promises of public-works projects or threats to thwart members' favorite legislation--to win the handful of votes needed for victory.
Reagan and his top aides staged a massive public relations blitz for the contra aid, casting the issue--with sometimes strident rhetoric --in the most dire terms.
In a televised appeal, the President warned that the "malignancy in Managua" threatened to spread from Nicaragua--a nation about the size of Wisconsin with 3 million people--north to the U.S. border and south to Cape Horn.
White House communications director Patrick Buchanan said the vote was no less than a choice between supporting Reagan or the communists. The President suggested at one point his foes were dupes of the Kremlin.
Opponents of the aid package reacted sharply, calling the White House tactics "red-baiting" and "McCarthyism."