WASHINGTON — The House vote to reject President Reagan's request for $36.25 million in aid for Nicaragua's Contras will not drive them off the battlefield but will clearly reduce their ability to inflict military pressure on the Sandinista government, U.S. and rebel officials said Wednesday.
Despite the President's warning that the Contras would "wither" without the funds, the rebels have stockpiled supplies and ammunition in anticipation of a possible aid cutoff. Several Administration officials estimated that the Contras could fight until mid-April with the supplies they have now.
"The war will go on, and it will continue to be bloody," said a State Department official who works with the Contras. "You've got 6,000 men down there who have been fighting for eight years. They continued fighting when we cut off aid before and will probably continue fighting now.
"But there are 8,000 more who may not be able to continue. The question is how many will keep fighting, and how long it will take the Sandinistas to grind them down."
Contra chieftain Adolfo Calero, who spent the day lobbying on Capitol Hill, refused to say how long he believes that his troops' supplies can hold out. But he promised that the rebels will fight on regardless of the vote.
"The fight for freedom is something that never ends," Calero said.
Beyond the money and materiel the Contras have stockpiled, they are looking to two other possible sources of funds to keep their movement alive: some more restricted form of help from Washington and renewed infusions of private funds.
The Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives, who engineered Wednesday's defeat for the President, said they will allow the House to vote on a package of strictly non-military aid for the Contras before the current funds run out. The aid requested by Reagan included $3.6 million for ammunition and some additional funds for transporting the ordnance and for other military equipment.
With the non-military aid alone, the Contras would be able to survive and continue guerrilla operations, although presumably at a reduced rate.
'Running Out of Bullets'
"Guerrillas don't have to use as much ammunition as a conventional army," an Administration official observed. "But if troops know they are running out of bullets, they will naturally cut down on the number of operations."
U.S. and Contra officials noted that the rebels have enough rifles, machine guns and even Redeye anti-aircraft missile launchers, thanks to $70 million in military aid approved by Congress in 1986. Their main military need is a continued supply of bullets, grenades and missiles.
In comments that could indicate a repeat performance of the secret aid effort that led to the Iran-Contra scandal, retired Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub and other Contra supporters said Wednesday that they plan to raise money from foreign governments and wealthy Americans to keep the rebels fighting.
"If there is a cutoff in military aid or if the aid is insufficient, we believe we have an obligation to try to augment that," Singlaub said in a telephone interview from his home in Tabernash, Colo. "We will engage in solicitation of foreign entities--not necessarily governments, but not excluding governments--entirely within the law.
"It won't be easy, because of the embarrassment that we've put our friends through already," he said, referring to last summer's Iran-Contra hearings. "But there are several countries which have had more direct confrontations with communism than the United States and which understand better what the threat from the Sandinistas is."
He said $750,000 a month would be sufficient to keep the Contras fighting at current levels.
Singlaub said a coalition of Contra supporters also planned to sell "Nicaraguan war bonds" in the United States, transfer the money raised to foreign bank accounts and use the funds to buy weapons--an arrangement he contended would be legal.
Singlaub solicited aid for the Contras in 1985 and 1986 from Taiwan and South Korea, according to evidence produced by the investigations of the Iran-Contra scandal. Taiwan eventually gave the rebels $2 million after then-White House aide Oliver L. North met with its government's officials.
But Singlaub's main function in the private aid network of those years, officials said, was to draw attention away from North's main effort, supplying the Contras through retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord.
It was North and Secord's operation that led to the secret diversion to the Contras of some $3.8 million in profits from President Reagan's clandestine sales of weapons to Iran.
Congress cut off U.S. aid to the Contras entirely from mid-1984 until late 1985. During that period, the rebels subsisted largely on $32 million in secret aid obtained by President Reagan from Saudi Arabia.
From 1985 until late 1986, Congress provided $27 million in non-lethal aid--the same kind of compromise program the House leadership is proposing now. It was during that period that North and John M. Poindexter, then Reagan's national security adviser, resorted to diverting money from the Iranian arms sales to keep the Contras' war going.
Then in 1986, Congress approved $70 million in military aid plus $30 million in non-military aid. When that money ran out last fall, Congress authorized about $20 million in non-lethal aid through several stopgap bills that expire Feb. 29.
Times staff writers David Lauter and James Gerstenzang contributed to this article.