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GOP Leader Sees Defeat for New Contra Aid

March 11, 1987|JAMES GERSTENZANG and KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) conceded Tuesday that under present circumstances, the Reagan Administration's proposal for $105 million in new aid to the Nicaraguan rebels will be defeated.

"There's no question but that they (Democrats) control the votes. . . . You can count and I can count," he said.

Although revelations about the Iran arms sales and diversion of funds to the contras have clearly made the Administration's request a greater challenge, Michel's remarks represented the first such pessimistic comments by a senior Republican.

Wright Agrees

House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who has voted against aid to the contras in the past, agreed with Michel's assessment, saying that the funding proposal will fail "in the absence of some very dramatic change that I don't foresee."

The Administration faces both long- and short-term difficulties in obtaining funding for the anti-Sandinista forces. While the vote on the $105 million could be several months away, the House is scheduled to vote today on a proposal to withhold $40 million approved for the rebels in the current fiscal year.

The money would be frozen until President Reagan accounts for funds diverted from the Iran arms sales and for $27 million in humanitarian aid voted by Congress last year.

The moratorium has been aggressively promoted by the Democrats, despite the likelihood that it eventually will fail. Thus, the Administration faces its first key congressional test since former Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) became White House chief of staff--bringing to his job considerable experience in dealing with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.) said that the moratorium will face an almost certain filibuster in the Senate, and the White House said that, if it did pass the Senate, the President would veto it. "It's not going to go anywhere. . . . The real fight is going to be in the fall" for the $105 million, he said.

Little Chance of Success

Congressional Democrats devoted considerable energy Tuesday to the moratorium, although Wright acknowledged that it has little chance of becoming law.

Still, he said, "we have the responsibility to say what we believe."

The moratorium is "aimed at redefining the proper role of the United States in Central America and at restoring the United States to its historic place as a defender and an upholder of law," Wright said.

House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said that the moratorium is a "constructive notice to the Administration" that it had better begin preparing for the day when contra aid will be cut off.

Reagan, through spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, sharply criticized the Democratic leadership for bringing the moratorium proposal to a vote and told Republican congressional leaders at the White House, "All they are trying to do is break the commitment that the Congress made last year" to spend $100 million on contra aid in the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

Veto Threat

Fitzwater said that, while the vote will be close, approval by both the House and Senate would be met by a presidential veto and that the White House is confident it has the votes to prevail if Congress tried to override the veto.

The White House spokesman, summarizing a report given to the congressional leaders by Frank C. Carlucci, the President's national security adviser, said that the contras are beginning "to show real progress in terms of territory control and military operations."

Senate Democrats have reached no decision on whether to offer moratorium legislation similar to that in the House. Some are anxious to offer the funding freeze as an amendment to another bill providing $300 million in additional aid to the countries in the region.

At a closed-door caucus of Senate Democrats, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) argued that the Democrats should take no action to block the money at this point because it might undermine plans for a Central American peace summit in Esquipulas, Guatemala.

Fear 'Wimp' Image

Dodd said that many of his Democratic colleagues prefer the moratorium because they are afraid to state flatly that the President's policy in Central America has failed.

"They don't want to say it because they would sound like a bunch of wimps," he said.

In a separate move, Sen. Lowell P. Weicker (R-Conn.) introduced a resolution to simply disapprove the remaining $40 million. Weicker said the money should be halted because the policy of aiding the contras has failed.

Times staff writer Sara Fritz contributed to this story.

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