WASHINGTON — It seemed like a golden opportunity, especially in an election year.
House Democrats, savoring their defeat earlier this month of President Reagan's request for $36.25 million in additional aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, promised nearly three weeks ago to sponsor a new plan offering the rebels humanitarian assistance such as food, medicine and clothing--but no weapons.
The carefully crafted "peace package," scheduled for a vote this week, would quickly win support from liberals opposed to arming the Contras, from moderates reluctant to abandon the rebel forces and from Republicans who want whatever they can get for the Contras, Democratic leaders had predicted.
All Bets Are Off
But now, all bets are off. Democrats are still searching for a compromise to unify rival factions in their party, and Republicans have no intention of helping them. Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration has spurned several requests by House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) to help draft a new aid proposal, preferring to let Democrats make the next move.
"This is a pretty tricky business," said California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), an opponent of military aid who has been part of a negotiating group of 18 Democrats, many of whom favor some kind of assistance. "Right now, I'd say there's a very big split in our caucus."
The Democrats' quandary shows how difficult it is to forge a consensus on the Contra issue, which has divided Congress and is hostage to rapidly changing events in Central America. It also underscores the risks of Wright's decision to thrust himself--and his party--into a confrontation with the White House over U.S. policies toward Nicaragua's Sandinista regime.
If the new initiative fails, it would be seen as an embarrassing setback to Wright's leadership and would call into question his ability to help resolve the Nicaraguan dilemma.
A defeat probably would be followed by another Administration bid for some kind of military assistance. That prospect encourages many Republicans, who were stung by the 219-211 House vote on Feb. 3 that rejected Reagan's aid request, $32.65 million of which was earmarked for humanitarian, or "non-lethal" assistance, and $3.6 million of which was designated for military supplies.
"I think they (Democrats) will have difficulty rounding up votes for this one," said Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), a staunch Contra supporter who has vowed to offer a rival package calling for military aid. "Jim Wright might believe he can wriggle off the hook by offering the Contras some aid, but anyone who supports the rebels will vote against this."
When they first began discussing their plan, Democrats were poised to seize the initiative on an issue that has so far been orchestrated by the White House. Their aid package, while providing no weapons, would encourage the Sandinistas to make further concessions toward democratization and "show Americans what we Democrats stand for," said California Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the House Majority Whip.
In recent weeks, however, Wright has been coy about details of the plan, saying only that it might offer $3.6 million a month to the rebels. Another Democratic leader, Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, said funds may also be provided for children injured by the war.
Beyond that, key differences have emerged among Democrats over when and how the aid should be delivered. Unless they are resolved, some members fear that the plan could be doomed.
Many liberals, for example, believe that humanitarian assistance should not be delivered until the Contras and the Sandinistas agree to a cease-fire. If any aid is given to the guerrillas before the war ends, "Democrats would be feeding the Contras while they continue to fight, and that's just unacceptable," said California Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez).
But moderates want aid to reach the Contras immediately, fearing that if the Sandinistas renege on their pledge to negotiate further reforms, the rebels could be left "high and dry, with no ability to resume their fight," according to Rep. Albert G. Bustamante (D-Tex.), who has voted on both sides of the aid issue.
At first, House Democratic leaders appeared to insist on a cease-fire before delivering any aid. But they moderated that position, as House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) and other Republicans balked and vowed to offer their own plans.
Last week, for example, Michel scoffed at the Democratic package as "pretty soft stuff" and said he could only support a plan putting "real pressure" on the Sandinistas. Meanwhile, California Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) said most Republicans opposed any delay in the delivery of aid, contending that it would "guarantee that Contras will become refugees from their own country."