WASHINGTON — The House, in a marathon session, Wednesday debated President Reagan's request for $36.25 million in aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and pressed toward a late-night vote that could determine whether the rebels will receive any more U.S. weapons this year to wage war against the nation's Sandinista government.
During the emotional and acrimonious debate, White House officials and congressional Democratic opponents both predicted victory, and the issue was expected to be decided by as little as five votes.
If the controversial aid package--one of the President's chief foreign policy objectives--is approved, it will move today to the Senate, where an equally close outcome is expected. But if the proposal loses, it will be dead, under an earlier agreement between Reagan and Democratic leaders.
Defeat would mean that the rebels' only chance for U.S. assistance would rest with congressional critics, who have pledged to offer an alternate package that would include only "non-lethal" aid.
Without significant U.S. funding, the Contras will be able to mount only limited combat actions against the Sandinistas, American officials and rebel leaders say, and would have to plead for money from other nations and private donors.
"We firmly believe we have the votes to defeat this and show our faith in the Central American peace process," said Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.), the House majority leader, shortly before the debate began. "The American people do not want more war in Nicaragua."
Republicans, however, said more Contra aid would pressure Nicaragua's Marxist regime to honor their promises of democratic reforms and ensure that the peace process being negotiated among the five Central American nations would not be derailed.
"This bare-bones aid package will support the peace process. . . . It is not an escalation of the war in Central America, it is a victory for common sense," said Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), who joined with his colleagues in a frequently bitter 10-hour debate.
Under Reagan's proposal, the Contras would begin receiving an estimated $32.25 million in so-called non-lethal aid ranging from humanitarian assistance to Jeeps, planes and other transportation equipment. The plan also contains $3.6 million for military equipment--mostly rifle ammunition and missiles--which will be held in storage through March 31.
Before sending the military supplies, Reagan has said, he will consult with Central American leaders to determine if progress has been made toward a cease-fire between the rebels and the Sandinistas. He also pledged to let Congress vote again on whether the weapons should be released.
Winning Over Moderates
The offer to Congress was part of a last-minute push by Reagan to win over 20 to 30 wavering House moderates, who as of Wednesday had still not signaled how they would vote. As the day wore on, both sides held meetings with the so-called swing voters, trying to get their support.
During the debate, which was interrupted at one point by anti-Contra protesters, House members on both sides said they support the peace plan that has been promoted by Central America's leaders. But they clashed over the best ways to find peace.
Democrats charged that the $32.25 million earmarked by Reagan for non-lethal aid contained equipment that could be used for war. They said their alternative proposal, which they have not yet outlined, would provide for food, blankets and medical supplies.
'Is Jeep Non-Lethal?'
"Is a helicopter non-lethal? Is a jeep non-lethal? Is a plane used for CIA (equipment) drops in Nicaragua non-lethal?" said California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica). "This request will triple the amount of money going to the Contras on a monthly basis, and it's a massive escalation of the war."
Others said Reagan's push to re-supply the Contras was ill-timed, in view of the sensitivity of the peace negotiations led by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez and the recent promises by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to expand civil liberties and address other grievances.
"Supporting Contra aid and the peace process is like taking a six-pack to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. You just can't have it both ways," said Rep. Edwin Markey (D-Mass.).
Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), echoing the statements of other Democrats, said, "I don't think there's a member in this house who supports that nasty dictatorship down there in Nicaragua. It's an affront to democracy. But the question is no longer whether we support the Sandinistas, it's whether we support peace."
Republicans countered that the issue was peace and freedom, stressing that the threat of a Contra war was the best guarantee that Ortega would honor his promises to make reforms.