WASHINGTON — House Democratic leaders, taking the lead in the fight over funding for the Nicaraguan rebels, Monday unveiled legislation that would freeze $40 million in aid already appropriated until President Reagan accounts for funds diverted from Iran arms sales to the contras and for $27 million in humanitarian aid voted by Congress last year.
The freeze, proposed by House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Assistant Majority Leader David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), lays down a warning to the Reagan Administration.
Foley said he is perplexed that the White House does not understand "the degree to which Congress is toughening its stand." He added that he hopes to bring the new proposal, which he calls "a clear message" of opposition to further contra aid, to the House floor for a quick vote Wednesday.
However, he acknowledged that even if the measure were to be approved, backers do not have the support to override a likely presidential veto.
The proposal would freeze the remaining $40 million that the contras are to receive from last year's $100-million appropriation. Under the appropriation measure, those funds will be released unless Congress acts to block them. The other $60 million was approved without that condition.
The bill, co-sponsored by six Democratic leaders and Republican Jim Leach of Iowa, says that the $40 million could be released only if the President tells the House and Senate intelligence committees how much the contras received from the Iranian arms operation, accounts for all contra aid solicited from third parties or governments and details how the $27 million was spent.
Reagan would have 180 days to provide the information, after which the committees would have 15 days to determine whether the reports were "full and complete." Subsequent release of the funds would then require a joint House-Senate resolution of approval, instead of the previous automatic release in the absence of congressional action.
Providing such an accounting would prove a formidable challenge to the White House. House and Senate investigations and the work of the presidentially appointed commission that probed the National Security Council have been unable to trace the flow of Iran arms sale proceeds to the Nicaraguan rebels, although the Administration has acknowledged that it apparently occurred.
Contra leader Adolfo Calero has admitted receiving about $200,000 that may have come from the arms deal, but officials of the Senate select investigating committee have indicated that the diverted funds will total much more, perhaps as much as $50 million.
No firm estimate has been reached on the amount of third-party assistance solicited for the contras during the period that Congress had banned U.S. military aid. Investigators have said it apparently exceeded $50 million.
Complicated by Silence
Tracing the contra funding has been complicated by the refusal of fired NSC aide Oliver L. North and other key figures in the Iran operation to cooperate with investigators.
The freeze legislation is expected to take precedence over a resolution of disapproval introduced last week in the House by Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.). That resolution would block the $40 million but does not include a presidential accounting as a condition.
Foley and Bonior said that, while they do not believe there are enough votes to override a likely presidential veto of either measure, they expect to get increasing support as the congressional session continues.
Foley declined to forecast whether the Senate, where support for the contras is greater, could pass either a simple disapproval resolution or a moratorium on spending.
Milder Senate Version
An aide to Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the Senate's version of the legislation--as yet undrafted but expected to be milder than that introduced in the House--will not be introduced for at least a week.
Even with the Democratic capture of the Senate in the November elections, Bonior said, contra opponents only "picked up about three" sympathetic votes in that chamber. "That's because some of the Republicans who were replaced had opposed contra aid," he said.
Foley said he has received private assurances from "many" House members of both parties who voted for aid to the contras last year that they will refuse to support further aid.
Administration officials have talked confidently about winning release of the $40 million, which will be urgently needed by the end of March, Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, told a Senate subcommittee Friday.