WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday narrowly approved continued military assistance for the Nicaraguan rebels in a vote that showed virtually no political movement on the controversial issue, despite the Iran- contra scandal and a new Democratic majority.
By a vote of 52 to 48, the Senate defeated a measure that would have halted the final $40-million payment of $100 million in assistance that Congress already had authorized for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
It was an important victory for President Reagan's Central America policy, even though many senators warned that the contras still might face a military aid cutoff next year if the Administration fails to take steps to promote peace in the region.
Disappointment for Foes
The margin was surprisingly similar to the 53-47 vote by which the Senate, then under Republican control, approved the program last Aug. 13. It was a bitter disappointment for liberal and moderate Democrats, who believed that they finally could defeat contra aid after winning control of the Senate in the election last November.
Although the Democrats now control seven more Senate seats than they did last year, their new majority failed to turn the tide. In fact, 14 Democrats voted in favor of the contra aid program Wednesday.
The only senator who switched his vote from last year was Sen. Daniel J. Evans (R-Wash.), who voted against the aid Wednesday and declared that he was simply fed up with "a one-track, single-minded policy with dubious objectives, based on a flawed rationale."
Nor were the senators particularly swayed by reports that the Reagan Administration, perhaps in violation of a law set down by Congress, had been directing an independent funding effort for the contras that drew millions of dollars from arms sales to Iran and at least $30 million from Saudi Arabia.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) argued that Congress should not approve more aid until the contras have accounted for the funds already received. "It's irresponsible to dump another $40 million down this rat hole before we know where the money has gone," he said.
And immediately after Wednesday's vote, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) indicated that he will press for a Senate vote in the near future on a measure passed by the House, 230-196, temporarily halting contra aid until Congress receives an accounting of all the money. The measure probably will be met with a conservative GOP filibuster.
But many opponents of contra aid insisted that it should be halted on grounds that it is a bad policy, not because Congress does not know how a few million dollars was spent. "I would suggest to my colleagues that this is not an accounting problem," Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.) said. "To focus on the money is to miss the point."
For these reasons, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a staunch opponent of the aid, said he could not support the so-called "moratorium" in funding already approved by the House.
Reports Show Fund Use
In addition, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) cited several recent accounting reports that show how U.S. funds were spent by the contras and argued that Congress cannot even "keep track of every cent" spent for domestic programs.
"This is not a corporate takeover or a domestic program; it's war," he declared.
While the Iran-contra scandal appeared to have had little impact on Senate sentiment, contra supporters in both parties indicated that they were running out of patience with what they viewed as the President's unwillingness to seek a negotiated peace in Central America.
At least four pro-contra senators, William S. Cohen (R-Me.), David L. Boren (D-Okla.), Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska), indicated that they would vote against continued assistance for fiscal 1988 unless the Administration does something to foster a diplomatic solution and to persuade the contras to adopt democratic reforms.
No 'Blank Check'
"The Administration should not interpret my vote . . . as a blank check to continue the policy without a broadening approach," Boren said.
Kassebaum accused the President of failing to heed a similar message sent to him last August when the current military aid was approved. She noted that Reagan has often defended contra aid on grounds that it would provide leverage to win a negotiated solution.
"What is the point to leverage for diplomacy if there is not sustained diplomatic effort?" she asked. "Without a sustained diplomatic policy, aid to the contras makes no sense."
Moderate supporters of the contras were particularly alarmed by the recent resignation of Arturo Cruz from the contra leadership. Cruz was viewed in Congress as the most moderate of the contra leaders and the most vocal supporter of pluralism and democracy.
May Be Defeated Later