President Reagan next week will name a blue-ribbon, bipartisan study commission to make wide-ranging recommendations on U.S. policy in Central America, including a possible "Marshall Plan" for the region, according to administration and congressional sources.
These sources said that the White House had delayed making an announcement in the hope of using the commission as a lever to win a compromise between the administration and Congress on continuing military aid to El Salvador and some form of covert assistance to U.S.-backed rebels against the leftist Nicaraguan government.
"Whatever happens on this issue, there's going to be a commission," said one administration official. "But the president hasn't signed off on the form it will take because we'd like to work out some kind of deal with Congress."
Administration officials are optimistic that Congress can be persuaded to continue a high level of military aid to El Salvador, pending the report of the commission by the end of the year. They are less optimistic about a compromise on covert aid.
Sources said the commission would be given what one of them described as "a broad mandate" to make long-term recommendations on U.S. policy in dealing with the problems of poverty, economic development and human rights in Central America.
It also would be asked to make proposals on U.S. aid for the region, which some, in both the administration and Congress, envision as a kind of Marshall Plan as far-reaching in scope as the program of economic assistance that revived the European economy after World War II.
"The problems, of course, are vastly different," one official said. "But the success of Central America is as important to the United States now as the reconstruction of Europe was at the time."
Officials said the commission will include academic, business and labor leaders as well as members of the Hispanic community. One source said that no members of Congress or the administration would serve on the commission, which would have authority to consult with Central American government and political figures in making its recommendations.
The commission is the outgrowth of a bipartisan proposal made by Sens. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) and Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.). The House co-sponsors, liberal Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) and conservative Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), span an even wider ideological range.
The idea has been so popular within the administration that officials yesterday made a point of observing that U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and national security affairs adviser William P. Clark, both staunch opponents of leftist military forces in Central America, had been early backers of the idea. Clark and Jackson met twice during the past week at the White House to discuss the plan, officials said.
The commission also has been welcomed by White House chief of staff James A. Baker III and administration political advisers, who view the new body as the logical successor to previous bipartisan commissions that forged difficult compromises on Social Security and the MX intercontinental ballistic missile.
"Whenever you can address a problem of this kind in a bipartisan manner, it tends to focus the attention of both the White House and the Congress on practical policy solutions," one official said.
Both the President's Commission on Social Security and the Scowcroft Commission, formally called the President's Commission on Strategic Force, were able to deal with issues that had been considered politically intractable, this official pointed out.
While officials didn't say so directly, they left no doubt that they believe that a bipartisan commission will make it more difficult for opposition Democrats to attack the administration politically on its Central American policies.
Surveys taken for the White House show that a majority of Americans is skeptical of administration policy in the region and that many fear that El Salvador could prove to be "another Vietnam."
Officials said that Reagan is likely to refer to the commission in a speech he is to give in Florida on Monday to the International Longshoremen's Association.
"It's an opportunity to address the Longshoremen and the Congress at the same time," said one official.
But the commission may not be named until later in the week, sources said.
Yesterday, Reagan signed legislation requiring him to certify that the Salvadoran regime is making progress toward extending human rights to Salvadoran citizens and is trying to solve the murder of U.S. citizens in that country.
The legislation shifts the responsibility of human rights certification from the State Department to the White House, and adds the responsibility that good-faith efforts have been made to bring to justice those responsible for eight murders, including four American churchwomen.
A letter sent to the president by Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) and 35 House colleagues had urged him to defer the certification of human rights progress, which is a congressionally imposed condition permitting more military aid to El Salvador.
"Recent data collected by the Catholic Church in Salvador, corroborated by the Embassy and America's Watch, indicate that the killings are once again on the rise," the letter said. "It is our position that further aid at this time would be inconsistent with the law."