WASHINGTON — Denied a prime-time television forum to plead his case, President Reagan made a final desperate drive today for $36.25 million in new aid to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
On the eve of a showdown with Congress, the President's battle boiled down to a tug of war over a relative handful of undecided votes in the House, where members will vote on Reagan's new financial request for the rebels.
In a round of private meetings at the White House, Reagan lobbied fence-sitting lawmakers with the argument that only military pressure from the U.S.-backed Contras will force Nicaragua's government to talk peace.
At the same time, his 11th-hour blitz suffered a severe blow as the three major television networks decided not to air a presidential appeal to the nation from the Oval Office.
Only Cable News Network chose to televise the 5 p.m. PST speech. Officials of ABC, CBS and NBC declined on grounds that Reagan, on countless other occasions, has had ample opportunity to make a public case for Contra aid.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater criticized the networks for "their journalistic failure to understand the historic significance" of the prelude to a vote that could shape U.S. policy at a "historic turning point in the struggle for democratic reform in Central America."
Hanging in the balance are a cornerstone of Reagan's foreign policy--support for anti-communist insurgents around the world--and, in the view of both sides, the prospects for a negotiated peace in Central America.
Echoing Reagan's repeated argument, Secretary of State George P. Shultz told the House Foreign Affairs Committee today that more military aid for the Contras "is a way to maximize chances for peace."
'No Meaningful Progress'
"If the Sandinistas get what they want--if Congress fails to approve our request for additional funds carefully tailored to progress in the peace process--we can be certain that no meaningful progress in the direction of moderation and democracy in Nicaragua will occur," Shultz said.
In a bid to take some of the edge off the $3.6-million military component of the aid package, Reagan promised to consult closely with Congress before arms or ammunition are released to the Contras in the absence of a cease-fire.
His assurances were met with skepticism. White House officials said the need to protect his constitutional prerogatives as President precludes Reagan's giving Congress a formal veto role in deciding when military aid would be warranted.
Former Virginia Gov. Charles Robb, a Democratic supporter of Contra aid who met with Reagan today, said he advised the President that mere assurances of consultations would not "go far enough" toward restoring trust between Congress and the White House. Without ironclad guarantees, Robb predicted, any request for military aid is doomed.