WASHINGTON — In the first test of congressional support for the Nicaraguan rebels since the eruption of the Iran- contra scandal, the heavily Democratic House voted Wednesday to block release of any additional U.S. money for the insurgents until President Reagan can account for all aid funds, both public and private.
The moratorium, which passed by a 230-196 vote after more than six hours of emotional debate, is not likely to stop payment of the remaining $40-million installment of this year's $100-million package of economic and military aid to the rebels. The reason is that the measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate and a promise of a veto by Reagan.
Still, the House vote indicated that congressional backing for the contras has slipped amid the controversy and in the wake of last November's elections, which gave Democrats control of the Senate and boosted their numbers in the House.
Latest Round in Battle
Wednesday's debate launched the latest round of a battle that President Reagan has fought repeatedly and frequently on Capitol Hill.
"The policy has changed a half-dozen times in six years," complained Rep. Jim Courter (R-N.J.), a contra supporter. "The message (to the rebels) is: 'You keep fighting. You keep dying. And in the meantime, we'll make up our minds.' "
The rebels' supporters--fighting to preserve one of Reagan's foreign-policy priorities--lost 25 votes since they won approval of this year's package last June. Seventeen Republicans sided with the Democrats in Wednesday's vote, compared with only 11 in June.
New Request in Fall
Some of the contra support could return when Congress considers the Administration's request this fall for $105 million in aid for fiscal 1988. However, the vote reflected, in part, congressional outrage over revelations that profits from the secret sale of U.S. arms to Iran were funneled to the contras last year while a congressional ban on military aid was in effect.
Congressional investigators apparently have been unable to account for the diverted funds, as well as private donations that were said to have been sent to the contras. Reagan has said that he was not aware of the fund diversion.
"Before we can even consider sending another dime to the contras, we must know the full extent of corruption in the contra program," said Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.). "The American people are tired of a policy that is mired in corruption. They want no more lies. They want no more corruption."
'Born in Deception'
California Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) said that the diversion of funds merely exposed the fact that Reagan's policies in Central America had been "born in deception, born in lies, born in cover-ups."
However, California Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Long Beach) countered that the real issue is the spread of communism, not the missing funds.
"When we asked for help in our Revolution from Lafayette, did he send us a delegation of accountants?" he asked. "Are we going to stop communism in this hemisphere with the GAO (General Accounting Office)?"
The California delegation voted along party lines on the measure.
Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), who led the fight against the moratorium, added, "Any young Nicaraguan who dies for freedom because we didn't send the bullets that we promised will die cursing every man and woman in this Congress."
Blamed for Defeat
Contra supporters repeatedly reminded opponents that they would be blamed for any eventual defeat of the rebels--and for possibly widening the influence of Nicaragua's Marxist-led Sandinista regime over its neighbor nations.
Many representatives began their speeches with a line written by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and distributed to pro-contra Republicans: "I don't want to be recorded as handing Central America over to the Soviets."
Recognizing the potential vulnerability to blame, the House Democratic leadership chose not to vote on a straight denial of the remainder of this year's funds, but rather structured the issue around forcing Reagan to account for the missing funds.
Thus, they hoped that conservatives would see the vote as one of fiscal responsibility, rather than taking sides in the struggle to prevent the spread of communism.
The measure would put a hold of up to six months, through the remainder of this fiscal year, on any additional funds for the contras until Reagan can account for proceeds from the Iranian arms sales, $27 million in fiscal 1985 humanitarian aid and private donations by U.S. citizens and foreign sources.
Democratic arguments that Reagan should account for the missing funds clearly swayed some votes, even in the face of a vigorous lobbying effort by the Administration.