WASHINGTON — Six weeks ago, when congressional leaders and the Reagan Administration set the ground rules for Wednesday's vote on aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, many on both sides talked about a final showdown, an up-or-down vote to decide the long-festering issue once and for all.
As members of the House voted, however, many said that the most important factor in shaping their decision was the simple realization that--regardless of the vote--the aid issue would not go away. A series of additional votes appears certain in the months ahead.
"No matter how we vote," California Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Monterey) said as the House debate neared its end Wednesday night, "we will face additional votes. We will face additional challenges."
And increasingly, members of Congress are almost welcoming that prospect, saying the best thing they can do for the Central American peace process is just to keep voting. "It keeps the pressure on both sides," says Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee and a closely watched moderate swing vote on aid to the Contras, who joined the majority in the 219-211 vote that defeated the aid package.
The House Democratic leadership already had pledged to bring its own Central American aid package to a vote within the next few weeks, a pledge House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) repeated Wednesday night, and some House strategists predict as many as 10 more Contra aid votes before the year is out.
Senators, too, say they expect a continuing series of votes as Congress seeks to exert the maximum amount of pressure on both sides in the Nicaraguan war.
"We could be voting on this every other week," Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), said last week. Congress will provide "a running observation platform on the behavior of (Nicaraguan President) Daniel Ortega," said Simpson, the Senate's deputy Republican leader.
"It isn't as if this is the last time," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a leading opponent of Contra aid, who had been lobbying House members up until the last moment.
Until very recently, Contra aid generated such extreme emotions that the mere thought of voting on it caused dread on Capitol Hill. The issue was considered politically dangerous for many senators and representatives.
And because the fighting in Nicaragua seemed endless, the issue was also a frustrating one. Except for a relatively small number of deeply committed Contra supporters and their equally committed opponents, most members of Congress said they had little way of telling whether the votes they cast were achieving the results they hoped for.
But the beginning of the Central American peace talks has changed the way Congress looks at the aid question.
"We're now comfortable" with the issue, said Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.), an opponent of Contra aid. "We have something we can point to."
That change appears to have made Congress more skeptical of the claims made by both sides in the Nicaraguan war. Liberal opponents of Contra aid openly say, as Mavroules does, "the Administration may not trust Daniel Ortega; neither do I." Mavroules and other Democrats routinely lace their speeches on Central America with discussions of how to "keep the pressure on the Sandinistas."
Encouraged by Some Steps
On the other side are Republican supporters of the Contras such as Rep. Matthew J. Rinaldo, who represents a New Jersey district with a large and militant Cuban exile community. "I have to say quite candidly that I've been encouraged by some of the steps taken by the Sandinistas" such as the reopening of opposition newspapers and the release of some political prisoners, Rinaldo said.
As a result, many in Congress say, the likelihood of further votes on aid by Congress has become part of the diplomatic process, not a threat to it. This is particularly true, they say, because the Contras have accumulated resources enough to survive the immediate consequences of any setback.
At the same time, the peace talks have reduced the intensity of emotions among both liberal sympathizers of Nicaragua's Sandinista government and conservative supporters of the Contras. "We can sustain the onslaught of lobbying much better now," Richardson says, because the political pressures are less intense.
"It's not a vote-cutting issue anymore," one on which friendly constituents might turn into opponents, he said.
Few Minds Changed
In fact, despite intense lobbying by Reagan and by senior Democrats, House vote counters say few votes were changed since last week when Reagan announced the details of his aid package.
A few tried the time-honored practice of using key votes to extract pork-barrel concessions from the White House. Rep. Roy Dyson (D-Md.), who has generally supported Contra aid in the past, told Administration officials that he might vote against it this time if the Administration went along with plans to reduce the size of a military installation in his district.