WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration, faced with almost certain defeat on Capitol Hill, probably will wait until January to ask Congress for $270 million in renewed aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, Administration and congressional sources said Wednesday.
A White House official said that no final decisions have been made but that the Administration is reassessing its plan, announced three weeks ago by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, to send the Contra aid request to Capitol Hill before the end of next month.
The official said the Administration probably will wait until after Jan. 7 to seek congressional action on its request for a sharp increase in support for the Nicaraguan insurgents, so as to give the Central American presidents' peace plan more time to work. The plan calls for a formal assessment Jan. 7, about two months after a truce is supposed to take effect Nov. 5.
U.S. allies in Central America, including El Salvador's President Jose Napoleon Duarte, have urged the Administration to avoid any action that could torpedo the peace plan, signed by all five Central American presidents in Guatemala last August, until it has had a chance to prove itself. If the January review shows that Nicaragua's leftist government failed to adopt the democratic reforms required by the peace accord, the chances for Contra aid might improve.
Congressional Democrats maintain that there is so little support for Contra aid now that the Administration had little choice but to postpone its formal request for the $270 million. "If they sent it up now, they'd lose," a spokesman for House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said.
'Won't Abandon Contras'
President Reagan has vowed repeatedly that the United States will not abandon the Contras. But Republican sources on Capitol Hill said White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci have recognized for some time that the Administration would have to back away from an early vote because of sentiment in Congress.
House Republican leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) has warned the White House that if the Administration forces a vote on Contra aid before it has enough support to win, the chances of winning later would be greatly reduced.
"The votes are not there for $270 million as long as the peace process continues in Central America, and we don't want all those people going on record against it if there is a chance of winning later on," a Michel aide said.
However, Administration and congressional sources said Reagan will request about $30 million in "non-lethal" aid to sustain the Nicaraguan Resistance until Congress acts on the full request. The smaller sum will almost certainly be less controversial, although House Democrats contend that the Contras already have enough money to carry them through Jan. 7.
A White House official said the Administration is prepared for a bitter fight, if necessary, to get enough money to maintain the Contras as a fighting force until the success or failure of the peace plan has been determined. The official said the Contras' survival is necessary to keep pressure on the Sandinista government to make the required democratic reforms.
He said the Administration will tell congressional Democrats: "If you want to give it (the peace plan) time to work, you will have to come up with some more money."
Shultz announced in a speech in Chicago earlier this month that the Administration would send the $270-million request to Congress before the end of November.
Without new funding for the Contras, he said, time would be on the side of the Sandinistas because they could simply wait until the Contras fell apart, then violate the peace pact with impunity.
A $100-million aid package for the Contras ran out Sept. 30, but Congress approved $3.5 million in non-lethal aid to support the resistance through November.