Democratic leaders of the House yesterday announced their support for and predicted approval of legislation to end the CIA's covert guerrilla campaign against the leftist government of Nicaragua.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which has a 9-to-5 Democratic majority, delayed yesterday's scheduled vote on the bill to give Republican members time to draft amendments. Committee Chairman Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.) said, "There are sufficient votes on our side to pass the bill out."
The growing support for the bill represents the first congressional response to President Reagan's nationally televised appeal to a joint session of Congress Wednesday night for his Central American policies. Boland, in his strongest statement to date on the Nicaraguan operation, told his home-town newspaper after Reagan's speech, "The covert action in Nicaragua ought to be stopped."
House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.), an ex-officio member of the intelligence committee, said after its 90-minute closed meeting yesterday that the bill is designed to bring a significant element of U.S. policy in the region "out into the sunlight . . . for all the world to see."
He said the legislation would force the United States to "practice what we preach" in defending our allies in the region from armed insurgencies by replacing the covert operation with "overt" assistance to friendly governments to stop illicit arms flows. At the same time, he said, the bill would end U.S. support for groups who "violate the territorial integrity of any other nation."
Wright added, "My guess is that something very much like this bill will be approved."
This could set the stage for a rare confrontation between the president and Congress over the executive prerogative to support and conduct secret paramilitary campaigns as an instrument of foreign policy.
The last time Congress stopped a CIA covert operation was in December, 1975, when the Senate voted to shut off funding for Angolan political factions fighting Cuban-backed forces for control of the newly independent African nation.
A vote Tuesday to shut off funding of the CIA operation in Central America also would represent the first time since the congressional intelligence oversight committees were created in 1977 that one of them reported out a bill challenging a secret operation.
The White House had no reaction to the Boland bill nor to Wright's forceful statement in support of it. One senior administration official said "a lot of communication is going on" with congressional leaders, and indicated that the White House was trying to work out some compromise.
Boland said he had spoken to House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) about arranging a secret session of the House after the bill is reported out to brief the full membership on the intelligence panel's views. One committee member said the bill could reach the House floor for action by the end of the week.
Senate sources said yesterday that a proposal "quite similar" to the House bill had been made to the Senate Intelligence Committee by Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.), but one member predicted that the Senate panel would not take any action until after the House did.
The Senate committee has asked its chairman, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), to arrange a meeting with Reagan to discuss the Nicaraguan operation. A senior administration official said Goldwater and the committee's vice chairman, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), may be asked to come to the White House to meet with Reagan in the next few days.
The House bill, introduced late Wednesday by Boland and Rep. Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, prohibits "the Central Intelligence Agency or any other department, agency, or entity of the United States involved in intelligence activities" to spend any funds "for the purpose . . . of supporting, directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary operations in or against Nicaragua by any nation, group, organization, movement or individual."
At the same time, the bill would fund "overt" assistance "to interdict the supply of military equipment from Nicaragua and Cuba to individuals, groups, organizations, or movements seeking to overthrow governments of countries in Central America."
One advantage of the bill for the Reagan administration could be that it would provide the president with $30 million this year and $50 million in the 1984 budget year beginning Oct. 1 for military "arms interdiction" assistance to El Salvador, Honduras and other Central American nations.
Up to now, these countries have received only indirect benefits from covert budget expenditures by the CIA and Defense Department that, by the reckoning of some officials, has exceeded $40 million a year.
One Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. C.W. Bill Young (Fla.), said yesterday that he "wouldn't be surprised" if the bill, which he opposes, cleared the committee. "I have an idea the steamroller is moving."
He said "it would be a mistake" to change policy abruptly on the covert operation, which was authorized in a secret order signed by Reagan on Dec. 2, 1981.
Young, who just returned from a CIA-sponsored trip to Central America, said leaders in El Salvador and Honduras expressed deep concern that the United States would abandon several thousand exile forces fighting the leftist Sandinista regime.
"Is this going to be another Bay of Pigs?" Young said he was asked, referring to the CIA-sponsored assault by anti-Castro forces on Cuba in 1961, which withered on the beaches for lack of air and sea support.
There are presently about 3,000 U.S.-backed guerrillas fighting inside Nicaragua, supported from bases and training camps in Honduras. These guerrillas receive intelligence from U.S. photo and communications spy planes, which have the capability of intercepting the most sophisticated coded messages sent from Managua and to Nicaraguan army forces and to leftist guerrillas in neighboring El Salvador.
Reagan has said the only mission of U.S.-backed forces in the area is to interdict arms flowing to Salavadoran guerrillas. But reporters who have been allowed to travel with them reported their objective is primarily the harassment of Nicaraguan army and militia forces.