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House Democrats Assail Contras' Private Fund Raising

February 10, 1988|JOSH GETLIN and JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — House Democratic leaders, blasting the decision by the Nicaraguan Contras to seek funds privately from American citizens, warned Tuesday that they will try to ban such activities as a condition of any future congressional aid.

The Democrats, who also criticized the rebels for postponing this week's peace talks with Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas, charged that White House officials have approved that decision, raising questions about the Administration's commitment to peace in Central America.

"The Contras are widely seen, rightly or wrongly, as surrogates for the Administration," House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) told reporters. Their failure to attend the talks "gives the unfortunate impression that the Administration is not interested in a negotiated settlement but still wants a military resolution."

Wright's complaints came as the House leadership, having narrowly defeated President Reagan's plan for providing military and non-lethal aid to the rebels, is trying to work out its own compromise package of strictly non-military assistance.

It also came as California Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the House majority whip, disclosed a Democratic strategy to ban private fund-raising activity by the Contras as a condition of more aid. Contra supporters have argued that such a restriction could doom the rebels to defeat.

In a letter to the White House, Wright urged Reagan's "active participation" in drafting an alternative package, saying that a vote on the assistance could occur within two weeks. The President should work with the Congress now, he said, instead of "preparing for a confrontation" later on.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the Administration hopes "to proceed on a bipartisan basis" with a new Contra aid program being advanced by the Democrats, but he said no specific proposal has been given to the White House.

Fitzwater also said that the White House will have no involvement in private assistance for the guerrillas. The covert raising of such aid during a previous congressional ban on government assistance to the Contras was a key issue in the Iran-Contra scandal.

'Not Involved in Any Way'

"We recognize that there will be people who want to give support to the Contras in one form or another (who) have every right to do so. But we will not be involved in any way," the spokesman said. "The White House and the federal government will not be involved in private support to the Contras. Period."

Fitzwater, who said that Reagan has made no such private contribution himself, also played down the impact of the Contras' postponing the peace talks in Central America. He tied the delay to a need to consider the impact of the House rejection of Reagan's assistance request.

The Contras intend to resume the talks "as soon as possible," and the United States has urged them to return to the negotiations, Fitzwater added.

In an announcement Monday, Contra leaders in Miami said they are postponing the talks, originally scheduled for today, until the mediator, Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, returns to Central America from a European trip on Feb. 18. On Tuesday, the Sandinista government agreed to the delay.

Also on Monday, the Contras announced they have set up special funds for collecting private contributions in the United States, largely as a stopgap measure until Congress approves more aid. They said that the money will buy supplies such as medicine, boots and other "non-lethal" provisions and that the fund raising will be completely public.

The strong reaction to the rebels' new tack suggested that Wright and other Democratic leaders may have difficulty selling their proposal for a package of non-military Contra aid to House members on either side of the bitterly divisive issue.

During the debate leading up to last week's vote against $36.25 million in aid to the Contras, Wright sought to assure wavering moderates in both parties that they would be able to vote soon on a "non-lethal" package and thus not be seen as having abandoned the rebels.

But House members who opposed the Administration's aid package might be even more skeptical if the Contras continue to avoid the peace talks and persist in private fund-raising activities.

Wright is also likely to encounter opposition from lawmakers who voted for the military assistance.

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