WASHINGTON — House Democratic leaders, countering a Contra aid proposal passed last week by the Senate, sounded out support Wednesday for more modest amounts of non-lethal supplies but apparently face stiff opposition from within their own rank-and-file.
The package under consideration calls for between $5 million and $6 million, which would be enough to continue providing non-lethal aid at current rates until mid-February at the earliest, House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said. That is lower than a Senate-approved proposal to provide about $16 million, including transportation costs.
Wright said it would "not just leave the Contras out to dry or to wither on the vine but provide continuity of a level of food and clothing and shelter and medicine and the delivery of that material, into or possibly even through February."
No Showdown Seen
Unlike the Senate plan, it would not allow the CIA to mix non-lethal supplies with weapons and ammunition authorized under earlier legislation but not yet delivered. The Administration is not expected to force a showdown over further military aid until late February.
Some liberal Democrats indicated that they would not support even that scaled-back plan. "Many Democrats are bound and determined to oppose one single red cent of Contra aid under any circumstances whatsoever--period," said Rep. Peter H. Kostmayer (D-Pa.), who counted himself among that number, estimated by various sources to be between 30 and 75.
But if they fail to include Contra aid in a massive catchall spending bill, lawmakers face yet another big problem: a possible presidential veto. President Reagan has warned that even though the bill must be passed to implement a $30-billion deficit reduction plan and to continue funding most government operations, he will veto it unless it contains aid for the rebels.
Also, Kostmayer and others concede that the opposition may be fading in the wake of reports last weekend that Nicaragua plans a massive military buildup. Only a week ago, momentum seemed to be going the other way, in favor of opponents who argued that any aid to the Contras could upset the delicate peace process that has been under way since the signing last August of a regional peace accord.
Meanwhile, as Congress pushed to adjourn for the year, small groups of lawmakers met around Capitol Hill to settle scores of other differences between the House- and Senate-passed versions of the $600-billion spending bill and another piece of legislation raising $9 billion in new taxes and cutting federal benefit programs.
Those two bills, which are the only unfinished business standing in the way of adjournment, are necessary to implement the deficit-reduction agreement reached last month after weeks of negotiation between the White House and Congress.
Stopgap legislation has continued funding of most government operations since the Sept. 30 end of fiscal 1987. The latest short-term measure, including non-lethal Contra aid, expired Wednesday, but both houses passed and Reagan signed a measure that extended it through Friday.
During a long day of cautious negotiations, House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committee negotiators traded complicated counterproposals aimed at ironing out strong disagreements over corporate tax policy.
By midday, the Senate agreed to accept a House proposal to impose an excise tax on gains from so-called "green mail" schemes in which corporate raiders reap big profits by selling shares back to their target companies.
But it rejected a House proposal to allow only 75% of the interest on funds borrowed for takeovers to be deductible. Late Wednesday, House negotiators were still trying to put together a proposal on this issue that the Finance Committee could accept.