WASHINGTON — Two days before the House casts what the Reagan Administration says is a "make or break" vote on aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, the White House acknowledged Monday that it still lacks the votes to win approval of the $36.25-million request and is searching for a compromise that will gain support among moderate Democrats and Republicans.
As part of his home-stretch campaign, President Reagan again turned to his speech writers in an effort to muster last-minute support for the Contras. "The Sandinistas haven't made one concession on their own without a threat hanging over them," Reagan said in an address to the National Assn. of Religious Broadcasters.
"The way to democracy and peace in Nicaragua is to keep the pressure on the Sandinistas, taking irreversible steps to comply with the regional peace plan and giving aid to the freedom fighters now," said the President, who will take his case to the American public in a televised speech scheduled for 5 p.m. PST today.
Supporters and opponents of the proposed aid package and the Contra movement in general believe that Wednesday's vote in the House could have a wide impact on prospects for peace in Central America for years to come. Both sides have been conducting all-out campaigns on the vote, the outcome of which is apparently hanging on 20 or fewer undecided lawmakers.
House Democrats continued to predict that the President's spending proposal will be defeated. Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said that several Republicans will join Democrats in defeating the request.
House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) reiterated that he will present an alternative aid package to Congress if Reagan's plan is rejected. His reluctance to provide details triggered sharp criticism from Republican leaders in the House, however, who said that the Democrats were holding back details of their counterproposal because they have not developed a meaningful plan.
A key part of the Democrats' strategy has been to promise wavering moderates that they will be able to vote on an alternative aid package not including funds for ammunition and arms if Reagan's plan is defeated.
But House Republicans criticized the Democrats, and an aide to the Republican leadership said: "They haven't yet got a plan that will satisfy these people . . . and it's easier to float something out there without any details, so nobody can take potshots at it. The whole thing is pretty dubious at this point."
Both sides in the Contra aid battle are focusing on "the same 20 people," said California Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the House Democrats' chief vote-counter. "We're working this hard, and we know the White House will be doing the same."
Behind the scenes, White House officials discussed with members of Congress revival of a plan to give the House and Senate a voice in determining whether to release $3.6 million in military-related funds that would be placed in an escrow account under Reagan's proposal.
Only last week, the Administration seemingly abandoned such an effort, after determining that any plan giving the House and Senate a role in releasing the money--beyond voting for the appropriation--would violate constitutional prohibitions on allowing Congress to share the President's power to approve or veto legislation.
On Monday, however, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that the Administration "might be able to work out something" intended to satisfy sufficient members of Congress to win approval of such a plan, although officials refused to give details.
In the Administration's current funding request, the availability of military-related money would hinge on Reagan's certification after March 31 that a cease-fire had not been negotiated in Nicaragua, that the Contras had sought such a cease-fire and that the Sandinista government was not making progress toward promised democratic reforms.
In other Central American developments Monday:
--Nicaragua's ambassador to the United States, Carlos Tunnermann, told reporters that his government will continue to negotiate for a cease-fire whether or not Congress approves the aid.
"If aid to the Contras is approved by Congress, we will continue our negotiations and our fight for peace," Tunnermann said. "(Nicaraguan President Daniel) Ortega will possibly ask for an immediate meeting of the five Central American presidents because aid to the Contras is against the spirit of the agreement" signed by the presidents in Guatemala in August.
--At a news conference sponsored by anti-Contra activists on Capitol Hill, James J. Denby, an Illinois farmer and pilot who was released from a Nicaraguan jail after 51 days of captivity last weekend, denied that the Sandinistas had asked him to speak out against Contra aid as a condition of his release.
Asked what he thought of the Reagan proposal, Denby said that the Contras could have won the war four or five years ago but that Congress "keeps playing games" with the funding for the rebels.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus, in Washington, contributed to this story.