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Liberals Fear Contra Aid Is Back on Track

December 22, 1987|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Once certain that Congress would kill aid for the Nicaraguan Resistance early next year, liberal Democrats now fear that the controversial assistance program has been permanently revived by President Reagan's determination and by recent developments in Central America.

Forecasts for the future of Contra aid shifted dramatically Monday after congressional leaders and White House negotiators agreed to a plan that would continue military assistance to the Contras through next Feb. 29 and provide for an up-or-down vote in Congress Feb. 3 and 4 on whether to provide aid beyond that date.

"I'm no longer confident that Contra aid will be ended next year," said Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.), one of the most outspoken liberal opponents of Contra aid. He added that the compromise "stacks the cards in favor of continuing the war in Central America."

'Think We'll Win'

Likewise, Reagan Administration officials expressed optimism that the Democratic-controlled Congress will approve continued assistance when it comes up for a vote early next year.

"A lot of Administration people think we'll win the vote," said a State Department official who declined to be identified.

It was just a few weeks ago that House Democrats were expressing confidence that they could permanently kill Contra aid early next year. Their optimism was based primarily on the view that congressional support for the Contras had been eroded both by the Iran-Contra affair and by recent progress toward a peace settlement in the region.

But the situation was altered by a rapid succession of events, including the intervention of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) into the peace process; a disclosure by Sandinista government officials that they have plans for a massive military buildup that includes the purchase of Soviet-made MIG-21 fighters, and a stalemate between Reagan and Congress over legislation to fund the government for the rest of the 1988 fiscal year.

Wright's role in the peace process made moderates and conservatives in his own party uncomfortable by giving the Reagan Administration an opportunity to brand the Democrats as pro-Sandinista. Administration officials were particularly critical of Wright's recent meeting in Washington with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega at a time when the President has refused to hold bilateral negotiations with the Sandinista government.

More Reluctant

Conservative and moderate Democrats grew even more reluctant to kill Contra aid when they learned of the Sandinistas' planned military buildup, a plan that was initially disclosed to U.S. officials by Nicaraguan defector Roger Miranda Bengoechea and later confirmed in Managua by Defense Minister Humberto Ortega.

Wright acknowledged last week that these revelations had succeeded in reversing congressional sentiment.

"The Sandinistas have had a history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory," he said.

Nevertheless, Wright and other liberal House Democrats were clearly surprised last weekend when conservative Senate Democrats refused to side with them in opposing Reagan's request for inclusion of continued Contra aid in a $600-billion omnibus spending bill. The President insisted that he would veto the bill if it did not include military assistance.

Compromise Plan

"Our problem was that the Senate Democrats, who are without courage and without conviction, caved in," said Rep. Mike Lowry (D-Wash.), explaining why House Democrats were forced to accept the compromise plan providing continued military assistance through Feb. 29.

Under the agreement, the Contras will receive $3.6 million in medical supplies, clothing, food and shelter through the end of February. In addition, they will get about $4.5 million for operating aircraft to deliver that aid to the troops, along with about 1.5 million pounds of weaponry bought with previously appropriated funds. The arms deliveries will be halted Jan. 12--three days before Central American leaders meet to assess the progress of the peace process--but Reagan can resume them a week later if there is no cease-fire in Nicaragua.

Although the compromise stipulates that aid to the Contras must be suspended if either the House or Senate votes against it in early February, liberals claim the scheme has given Reagan increased political leverage to prevail at that point.

Mrazek said the President will have an opportunity in early February to fashion a proposal for continued aid that will appeal directly to the 30 or 40 moderate and conservative House Democrats who have long been viewed as "swing votes" on the issue.

'Installment Plan'

In addition, according to Lowry, the compromise plan allows the Administration to obtain Contra aid on the "installment plan"--requesting only a small amount in February and then making another, larger request after July 1. Congress usually looks more favorably on such incremental changes.

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