WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders and top White House officials tentatively agreed late Saturday on a complex scheme for delivering about $8 million in non-lethal aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, paving the way for passage of a massive spending bill needed to fund most federal agencies for the next nine months and apparently averting a government shutdown.
The House and Senate are expected to meet today in a rare Sunday session to pass a one-day stopgap spending measure to keep the government operating Monday and give both houses of Congress an opportunity to approve the agreement.
Although the government technically ran out of money on Saturday, few effects were felt.
Several provisions of the $600-billion spending legislation remain unresolved, but the apparent Contra aid agreement removes the largest single stumbling block.
Test of Reagan's Leverage
President Reagan had threatened to veto the measure unless it contained what he considered an adequate amount of Contra aid, and Republicans had portrayed the struggle as a crucial indicator of how effective the President will be in dealing with a Democratic Congress in the final year of his term.
In the end, it appears that Reagan will get only half of the roughly $16-million Senate package that he had said was the minimum he would accept. The package tentatively agreed on Saturday night would provide the Contras with $3.6 million in supplies such as food, clothing and medicine--enough, it is estimated, to last them through the end of February. When the cost of transporting the goods is added, the package totals about $8 million.
Baker at Negotiations
But Administration officials, headed by White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr., won important concessions during six hours of closed negotiations on a stickier issue: the conditions for delivering that non-lethal aid, along with stockpiled military supplies, at a delicate stage of the Central American peace process that began in August.
Peace Formula Sought
House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said both sides were "trying to find a formula by which you give an incentive to both the Contras and the Sandinistas . . . to make peace."
Under the arrangement, the U.S. government can continue until Jan. 12 to deliver weapons that were purchased before military aid was cut off last September and are now stored in Central American warehouses. Those stockpiled weapons would be mixed with the loads of non-lethal supplies.
However, the military component of the shipments will be interrupted for at least a week during a critical meeting of Central American presidents at which the leaders will review the progress of initiatives taken under the regional accord.
The military shipments then could be resumed temporarily if Reagan determines that Nicaragua's Sandinista government has been responsible for the failure to achieve a lasting cease-fire. Congress would not have a chance to stop the flow of weapons until Feb. 4.
A little more than a week ago, the political momentum on Capitol Hill had been moving against allowing any resumption of Contra aid. However, reports last weekend that the Sandinsta government was planning a huge military buildup, envisioning a 600,000-man army, appeared to have swung votes the other way.
Has Deficit-Reduction Pact
Along with funding the government through next September, the $600-billion spending bill carries out part of a deficit-reduction agreement reached last month after weeks of negotiations between the White House and Congress.
That agreement, a response to the Oct. 19 stock market collapse, sketched a plan to cut $30 billion from this year's projected $180-billion deficit, leaving a shortfall about equal to the $148 billion recorded for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Over two years, it would reduce the deficit by $76 billion.
Impasse Creates Logjam
The huge spending bill is necessary because lawmakers were unable to agree with Reagan until November on an overall fiscal plan. As a result, all other measures that were contingent on that plan simply backed up.
Almost every year, the logjam becomes worse. The messy annual exercise of writing the massive spending bill, rolling all of the government's regular appropriations measures into one, has become a sore point with the President, as it is with many in Congress.
"Each year, I'm given a choice. Hold my nose and swallow it whole . . . or veto the entire bill, closing down much of the federal government," Reagan complained in his Saturday radio address.
Repeatedly Threatens Veto
This year, he has warned repeatedly that he would choose the second option--despite the chaos it would create--unless Congress met certain conditions. Among them were providing what he considers adequate support for the Contras and abandoning an effort to write into law broadcasting's so-called Fairness Doctrine.