NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — The Reagan Administration may seek new military aid for contras battling Nicaragua's Sandinista regime even before a White House-backed offer for a cease-fire between the two sides expires Sept. 30, a senior Administration official said Thursday.
The proposed aid request appeared to cloud prospects for the White House peace plan, unveiled only last week by the President and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.).
White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. asserted Thursday that the plan remains on track and that no decision on asking Congress to allot further contra funding has been made.
'A Very Real Option'
Nevertheless, the early aid request was deemed "a very real option" by one ranking official traveling with President Reagan en route to his ranch in California, although Reagan has not "signed off" on the plan.
The money apparently would provide stopgap support for the rebels between Sept. 30, when current U.S. aid lapses, and the Nov. 7 date for a cease-fire proposed by Central American leaders in a preliminary peace accord reached last week.
Without a strong contra force inside Nicaragua after Sept. 30, U.S. officials fear, President Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, will have no reason to carry out the democratic reforms in his government that are called for by Nov. 7 in the Central American leaders' plan.
Many U.S. officials believe the 15,000 contras inside Nicaragua cannot survive as a credible force for more than a few weeks without new U.S. aid.
The White House official traveling with the President on Thursday called the contras an "insurance policy" that Nicaragua will carry out genuine changes in its autocratic regime during the "interregnum" between the Sept. 30 deadline and the Nov. 7 target date for a cease-fire.
"You've got Mr. Ortega in Cuba right now getting his instructions on the Central American peace plan," the official said, citing Ortega's visit to Havana as evidence of Ortega's insincerity. "It's sort of a homing-pigeon reaction."
As Ortega left Havana for Managua on Thursday, Cuba announced its approval of the peace plan.
A request for U.S. military aid to the contras after the current funding lapses on Sept. 30 would bolster the Administration's argument that its peace proposal remains an option in peace talks between Central American leaders and Ortega.
Wright has suggested in recent days that the agreement among Central American leaders for a Nov. 7 cease-fire overrides the plan drafted by himself and the White House.
The Administration has not openly opposed the Central American peace plan, which was largely drafted by U.S. allies in the region on the basis of an initiative earlier this year by President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica. But officials have worried openly that its terms were not as likely to produce changes in the Nicaragua government as the U.S. plan put together in talks between the White House and Wright.
On Thursday, one senior U.S. official said that "a lot of details have to be fleshed out" in the Central America leaders' peace proposal, but that the Administration has not written it off as unsatisfactory.
One major difference between the two peace plans, underlined by the President in speeches Thursday, is that the United States demands that any peace agreement be acceptable to the Administration-supported rebels inside Nicaragua.
No role for the contras is specifically included in the preliminary peace accord signed by the Central American leaders.
The suggestion that a new request may be made for contra aid appeared to signal a change in the terms of the U.S. peace proposal proffered by Reagan and Wright.
Their plan proposed a cease-fire in the contra war and other regional guerrilla conflicts if Nicaragua's regime undertook to make sweeping democratic reforms by Sept. 30.
The White House had indicated until Thursday that it would not seek new aid for the contras until that deadline passed in order to give its proposal a chance for success.
Reagan, meanwhile, turned his back on Washington and the Iran-contra scandal Thursday and headed westward, touting a political agenda he said offers a future "as big and wide open as the horizon over the Nebraska farmland."
In a pair of upbeat speeches in the heart of Great Plains cowboy country, the President allotted but two sentences to the Iran-contra affair, the prime topic of his nationally broadcast address the previous evening.
Instead, he lobbied sympathetic small-town crowds for a list of conservative reforms he said would consume the last 17 months of his term, "with no time off for good behavior."
Reagan, who arrived in California late Thursday afternoon for a monthlong summer vacation, appeared delighted, departing frequently from prepared texts to tell favorite stories to enthusiastic crowds in the Midwest.
Congress' summer-long probe of the White House was mentioned only once, and briefly.