WASHINGTON — Faced with a growing rebellion by party liberals, Democratic congressional leaders Wednesday abruptly postponed a showdown vote scheduled for today on their plan to provide humanitarian aid, but no further military support, for the Nicaraguan Contras.
While party leaders predicted victory for their proposal when it does come up for a vote--presumably next week--the decision to delay represents at least a temporary political setback to House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), who has sought to play an unusually aggressive role in shaping U.S. policy in Central America.
Democrats conceded that, despite intensive efforts by Wright and his lieutenants to put together a majority, they do not now have enough support to ensure passage of the controversial plan, which would distribute $30 million in food, medicine and clothing to the rebels and to children injured by the war.
"We have a lot of members who felt that we were forcing this to a vote . . . they felt this was unfair, that we were ramming it too much," said California Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the House majority whip.
'Need More Time'
"There's been no erosion, but people feel they need more time to study this issue," he said. Wright has staked much of his prestige on the plan, which he has argued would further the peace process in Central America.
President Reagan, meanwhile, said in his televised news conference Wednesday night that he would accept a plan that includes only non-military aid, because it would keep the Contras on the battlefield and give the Administration an opportunity to seek renewed military aid from Congress later. Republicans have devised their own plan for non-lethal aid.
"Anything that will keep the freedom fighters as a pressure on the Sandinistas is worth doing," Reagan said.
"When we tried to pass our own bill and narrowly failed, you could see that the military aid was down the road a ways--it was not necessary right now," he said. ". . . humanitarian aid is more imminent. And so if we can get that, that's fine, and we'll take our chances on the other."
He added that the Contras still have enough military supplies "for a limited period of time."
Reagan also said that he has noted some progress toward democracy in Nicaragua, but credited the Contras for pressuring the leftist Managua regime into reform.
"Now is not the time to reverse that process," he said.
The Democrats' bombshell decision to back away from an immediate vote capped a day in which Reagan and congressional Republicans unveiled their own plan to provide non-lethal aid to the Contras, and both sides mounted furious lobbying campaigns.
Earlier in the day, Democratic leaders had confidently said they had enough support to win, certainly by more than the 219-211 margin by which they defeated Reagan's bid for $36.25 million in aid to the rebels--$3.6 million of which was for arms--in a vote on Feb. 3. But after late afternoon meetings with several groups of Democrats, many of whom disagree deeply with one another on the Nicaraguan war, Wright and others said they had no choice but to withdraw their proposal.
"I think there was uncertainty in the leadership as to just where a number of people were on the issue," said California Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), an opponent of Contra aid and one of 20 Democrats who tried to find a consensus on the issue during three weeks of often tense negotiations.
"There's been an effort to forge a common ground, but some of these people (liberals) have had difficulty voting for any kind of aid to the Contras."
Delay Tied to Liberals
One House member, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, stressed that the delay was totally attributable to the liberals--many of whom had begun to receive strong protests from their anti-Contra constituents.
"For so many of us, this kind of vote requires such a major change in position, and before we vote for it . . . we have to make sure that it's understood in our districts," the member said. "I've received a number of telegrams today from people who simply don't understand why I would be voting for something like this."
Wright earlier this month began touting the humanitarian assistance plan as a lobbying tool in the battle over Reagan's military aid package. At that time, the struggle for votes focused largely on 30 to 35 moderates in both parties who were hesitant about giving the Contras more weapons but were also reluctant to abandon them.
Before the Feb. 3 vote, Democratic leaders urged the moderates to oppose Reagan's plan, explaining that they could vote for the humanitarian aid package several weeks later. The pitch worked then, but there was always the danger, according to one House member, "that we liberals would be taken for granted."
Vote Likely Next Week