MANY WASHINGTONIANS woke up last Tuesday to the sound of a familiar sneer. Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, was on National Public Radio sounding a theme that has been peddled by the administration ever since it began its hapless contra venture five years ago. What we are facing is nothing less than the establishment of a "Soviet base in this hemisphere." It was as if the Arias peace plan had never seen the light of day.
Abrams has been absent from Capitol Hill since the Iran-contra hearings, when he admitted to lying to Congress about his part in getting big bucks to the contras. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) refused to have him as a witness and House committees have followed suit.
But if he is out of the loop on the current peace initiative being pushed by House Speaker Jim Wright, Abrams is plainly in sync with his ultimate boss, President Reagan. The president's speech to the Organization of American States, which National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci had told Wright would be conciliatory, was the utterance of a man who chokes on the thought of leaving the Sandinistas in power.
Puzzled Hill people think that Carlucci was possibly speaking in comparative terms and meant to say that the president's remarks would be tame compared to earlier, more inflammatory drafts.
Wright found the speech "confrontational."
Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.), chairman of the hard-working House Task Force on Nicaragua, thought it was "insulting to the members and to the leaders of Central America."
The administration is hoping that El Salvador's president, Napoleon Duarte, will do contra aid some good in his upcoming visit here. Like Costa Rica's president, Oscar Arias, who was here last month, Duarte will address an informal joint session of Congress. Duarte is a signer of the Arias peace plan, which was endorsed by Nicaragua's four neighbors on Aug. 7.
The White House will hold up Duarte as an examplary leader who is negotiating with rebels in his own country. Reagan insists that the Sandinistas negotiate with the contras. The difference is that Duarte's rebels are home-grown, while the contras are a wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S. government.
In requesting another $270 million for the contras, Reagan is really counting on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. He is really all Reagan's got.
Said one White House aide, "Everytime those guys in the House have gone to the end of the limb for him, he's sawed it off."
It is true that Ortega, who can be as defiant as a teen-ager, made an ill-timed mission to Moscow in 1985, days after the House had voted to cut off contra aid. Largely because of noisy consternation over his trip, the House later reversed itself.
Ortega is planning to do it again. He will go to Moscow on Nov. 7, the deadline for the completion of opening phases of the Arias plan.
Dodd is in Central America this weekend and is expected to point out to Ortega that while freedom of travel is a democratic right of the type Reagan insists that Ortega adopt, regard for timing is in order.
Ortega has foiled the administration by taking a number of steps towards democracy, all of which Reagan says are insufficient.
The White House is up against two new elements in its uphill fight to keep the contras going. One is Wright, a man who knows history and loves power. His early sponsorship of a Reagan peace proposal was considered a tragic sellout by liberal colleagues. He swiftly switched his support to the Arias plan and took the gamble of his career. He gives Central American peace more time than any other issue before him, as well he might, since his reputation rides on the outcome. He has no more pride and ego invested in the venture than do the Central American leaders.
The problem the administration has with contra aid is the Bork problem revisited: Those opposed are infinitely more worked up than those in favor, and there is no popular constituency clamoring for it.
The House, Wright continues to warn the administration, is solidly against aid while there is a chance of peace. He says there has been no erosion.
Bonior has organized the membership of the House so that hardly a throat can be cleared without his whips knowing about it. At weekly meetings, monitors assigned to waverers report any tremors, and information is exchanged about mail and hometown press reaction in pro-contra members' districts.
The Senate is a different story. Senators regard any attempts to organize them as an affront to their sovereignty. Two Democratic big guns, Bill Bradley and Sam Nunn, are still committed to the contras. The peace groups are working Bradley over pretty hard. No change has been recorded. Republicans feel they must pay lip-service to the Arias peace plan, but no one has moved.
If Ortega doesn't do his number, aid will go the way of Bork.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.