WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled House, in what was portrayed as a major turning point for President Reagan's policy in Central America, voted Wednesday for the first time in nearly three years to provide military assistance to the Nicaraguan rebels.
By a vote of 221 to 209, the House approved a provision that would give $100 million in aid to the rebels, known as contras --including $70 million for weapons and other military equipment. The aid was attached to a larger, $8-billion bill appropriating money for military construction, which was later approved by a vote of 249 to 174.
At the same time, the House voted 215 to 212 for a restrictive amendment prohibiting U.S. government personnel--including military trainers--in neighboring countries from venturing within 20 miles of the Nicaraguan border. The measure reflected strong fears among the lawmakers that support for the contras might lead to U.S. military involvement in the conflict.
Beset by Allegations
Although the Administration's policy has been beset by allegations that the contras misappropriated earlier U.S. aid, the House rejected by a 225-198 vote an amendment that would have withheld funding until Congress receives an accounting of all past assistance.
All but four of the House's 434 members were present for the key vote on military assistance for the anti-Sandinista rebels--including Rep. George M. O'Brien (R-Ill.), a seriously ill and extremely frail member who received a standing ovation when he arrived in a wheelchair to vote for the President's position.
Fifty-one Democrats voted with the majority and 11 Republicans voted against the $100 million aid request--six more Democrats and five more Republicans than supported Reagan earlier this year. Members of the California delegation voted along straight party lines--the Democrats voting against the aid request and the Republicans voting for it.
'Only Round 1'
President Reagan, speaking at a fund-raising dinner for Republican senatorial candidate Jim Santini in Las Vegas, declared: "It's only Round 1, but boy, what a round!"
Contra supporters hailed the vote as a major victory for the President, who had postponed a scheduled vacation to conduct last-minute lobbying on behalf of the contra aid measure. Not since late 1983, when the Congress approved $24 million in covert aid, has the House voted to permit any military assistance for the contras.
The House has repeatedly rejected Reagan's requests for contra aid since early 1984, when members discovered that the CIA had used some of the funds to mine Nicaraguan harbors.
The victorious measure, co-sponsored by Reps. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.) and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), provides the aid in three increments--the first payment of $40 million immediately after enactment and the second of $20 million on Oct. 15.
But no arms could be provided until Sept. 1, and no so-called "heavy weapons," which were not specifically defined in the bill, could be given until the third increment on Feb. 15, 1987. Congress could vote to stop shipment of heavy weapons at that juncture.
In addition, the Edwards-Skelton measure would provide for strict controls on how the money is spent and authorize $300 million in economic development aid to four other countries in the region: Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and El Salvador.
All of these conditions were placed on the aid in a successful effort to win the support of moderate Republicans and Democrats who were opposed to the President's earlier proposals on a variety of grounds.
The Republican-controlled Senate still must act on a similar measure before the aid can be provided to the contras, but there is little doubt that the House vote signaled an eventual victory for Reagan. The Senate has frequently approved military aid for the contras over the last three years only to have it blocked in the House.
Michel Applauds Vote
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said the vote demonstrated bipartisan support for contra aid--"not only for today and next week, but certainly for several years to come."
"Tonight is really a turning point," said Rep. John G. Rowland (R-Conn.), one of several moderate Democrats and Republicans who dropped their previous opposition to military aid for the contras. "It's a turning point for a possible solution in Nicaragua."
Adolfo Calero, a leader of the rebel's Nicaraguan Democratic Force, who came to the Capitol for the vote, agreed that the aid would bring a turning point in the war against Nicaragua's Sandinista regime.
"It will be like the light at the end of the tunnel," he said, borrowing a phrase from the Vietnam era.
Vietnam Parallel Drawn