WASHINGTON — President Reagan, who urged Congress in his State of the Union speech to approve renewed aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, intends to dramatize that appeal by sending Secretary of State George P. Shultz on a peace mission to Central America, Administration officials said Monday.
They said that the proposed trip marks a last-ditch effort to defuse growing congressional opposition to more Contra aid by demonstrating White House willingness to support the region's stalled peace process. It represents a notable departure from the Administration's previous refusal to go beyond arms-length monitoring of that process.
Other Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said that Reagan now is willing to put military aid for the Contras in escrow until the fate of peace talks among Nicaragua and its four Central American neighbors is clearer.
$40 Million or Less
The sources said that Reagan plans to ask Congress on Wednesday for $40 million or less in new aid for the guerrillas fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista government. They said that most of it would be for such "humanitarian" purposes as food and that requested new military aid would amount to less than $4 million.
A House vote on Contra aid is scheduled Feb. 3, but prospects for approval are so uneven that Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) suggested Monday that the vote be postponed. A Shultz mission to Central America, one Administration official said, "is the only way to save it (Contra aid)."
Administration officials hope that the other moves will also help toward that end. The $40-million request, which would be spread over about six months, is far less than the Administration previously had planned to seek, and the escrow offer--in which the aid would be released only under specified conditions--amounts to another concession.
The proposed Shultz trip is to be announced when the aid package is submitted Wednesday, officials said. About 50 House members are believed to remain undecided on the aid issue.
Details and timing of the Shultz mission remain unsettled, officials said, but appear to involve discussions with representatives of the five nations--Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador--that are parties to a peace accord signed last Aug. 8 in Guatemala City.
No Meeting With Ortega
Shultz's trip apparently would not include a meeting with Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, whose Marxist-led regime has been battling the U.S.-backed Contras for more than seven years.
"The focus is not on Ortega but on the region," one official said. "It's five different countries. It's not direct negotiations with Daniel Ortega. That's what Ortega would love to hear."
Nevertheless, Shultz's entry into the regional peace effort would signal a major shift in Administration strategy and could be a first step toward direct U.S. involvement in bilateral talks with Nicaragua's Sandinista regime, one official predicted.
The Administration has strongly opposed direct talks with Nicaragua since an earlier round of such talks collapsed in early 1985, and official U.S. policy holds that the Contra war and other guerrilla fighting in the region are internal matters to be settled by Central Americans.
While voicing official support for the Guatemala City peace accord, the Administration has assigned only a mid-level State Department official, Ambassador Morris Busby, to monitor regional peace efforts.
However, a decision to send Shultz--the highest-ranking U.S. foreign policy official--to the region "gets (the United States) hooked into the process" and eventually could relegate Nicaragua's four democratic neighbors to the sidelines in peace talks, one U.S. official predicted.
Ortega has long demanded face-to-face peace talks with the United States, which he contends is solely responsible for the Contras' survival as a fighting force.
In a letter to Reagan made public Monday by the Nicaraguan Embassy, Ortega wrote that the Contra war "has left more than 25,000 of my countrymen dead, and the number grows every day. Isn't it time to say: Enough! ?
'Possible to Be Friends'
"To be sure, Nicaragua and the United States have their present differences. But I am convinced that none of them is irreconcilable," Ortega wrote. "It is not only possible for our two countries to coexist, it is possible to be friends, even partners. This is my government's and my own personal, profound desire."
Ortega said that his "one demand" is that the United States immediately end all support for the Contras and respect "the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of Nicaragua."
A White House official dismissed the letter, saying it "doesn't contain anything that hasn't been stated publicly by the Sandinistas."