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 bill appropriating money for military construction that was expected to be approved finally by the House later Wednesday night.
All but four of the House's 434 members were present for the vote--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.
Vote Along Party Lines
While 51 Democrats voted with the majority and 11 Republicans voted against the aid,members of the California delegation voted along straight party lines--the Democrats voting against the aid request and the Republicans voting for it.
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!"
Noting that votes on other amendments were still scheduled, he expressed hope that "our coalition does hold together" and said the first vote represents "a giant bipartisan effort."
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 illegally some of the funds to mine Nicaraguan harbors.
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
Liberal Democrats, also recalling U.S. involvement in Vietnam, characterized the vote as the first step down a path that could eventually lead to the commitment of U.S. troops in Central America. House Assistant Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said the House was adopting "a policy that will become irretrievable and irreversible for many years to come."
The Nicaraguan Embassy, in a statement bearing a similar theme, said approval of the aid package "moves the U.S. closer to the ultimate military solution that is the deployment of U.S. armed forces to the region." However, Ambassador Carlos Tunnermann added, "the contras can win their battles in Washington, but they are being defeated by the people in Nicaragua."
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 past three years only to have it blocked in the House.
A Defeat for O'Neill
The House vote was also a personal defeat for retiring Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), 73, who has used virtually all of the prerogatives of his office to frustrate the President. While other Democrats sought compromise, O'Neill remained firmly committed to his view that Nicaragua will eventually prove to be another unwinnable war similar to that in Vietnam.
Michel ridiculed O'Neill's unyielding position as "loyalty to petrified opinion," and added that "systematic delay is not a policy--it's paralysis."
What allowed many moderates to move toward the President's position, Michel said, were many new provisions incorporated into the Republican-backed measure shortly before the vote.
"This gave members who did switch the opportunity to tell their folks back home 'I voted on something different,' " he said.