The House, in a partisan rebuke to President Reagan's policies in Central America, voted last night to cut off further covert U.S. aid to rebels fighting the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
The 228-to-195 vote, which followed one of the most intense, emotional foreign policy debates in Congress since the end of the Vietnam war, was a political blow to the Reagan administration's 19-month-old "secret war" against the Sandinistas.
Split largely along party lines, the vote put the Democratic majority in the House--and, to a large extent, the Democratic Party--on the record in firm opposition to the president.
But it was highly uncertain whether the House action would lead to a cutoff of CIA support for the guerrillas challenging the Sandinistas.
The Republican-controlled Senate is considered unlikely to accept the House action. And if it were somehow approved by the Senate, Republican leaders predicted that it would be vetoed by Reagan.
Soon after the House vote late last night, Reagan administration officials said the government remains committed to continuing the covert operation in Nicaragua unless it is clearly forbidden to do so by Congress. They expressed confidence that the House action would be overturned in the Senate.
One official also confirmed that some CIA officials had objected to a plan by CIA Director William J. Casey to significantly expand the covert operation in Nicaragua and support as many as 15,000 anti-Sandinista guerrillas.
The official said these CIA officers had "gone along" with Casey on the formal recommendation while secretly warning some congressmen of opposition to the plan by those in the CIA who said they feared it could draw Cuban troops into the fighting in Nicaragua.
House members were told just before their final series of votes on the covert operation last night that CBS News had reported these "deep divisions within the CIA's clandestine operations directorate over plans to expand covert paramilitary operations against Nicaragua." A White House official immediately called Casey to ask whether it was true, according to sources. Casey reportedly said that all the senior officials in the agency had signed off on the proposal to expand covert aid.
The legislation approved by the House last night would replace the covert support for the anti-Sandinista rebels with $80 million of "overt" or open aid to friendly nations in Central America to help stop shipments of arms to leftist insurgents.
In order to protect U.S.-supported guerrillas already in the field, the cutoff of covert aid would take not effect until a secret date between now and Oct. 1, the end of this fiscal year. A ban on such aid is also contained in a secret intelligence authorization bill for the 1984 fiscal year pending before the House.
Reagan and senior administration officials were on the telephone last night in an unsuccessful attempt to swing the vote their way. Democratic leaders of the House, led by Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), made their own face-to-face appeals on the floor. O'Neill said shortly after the vote that it "responds to the will of the American people."
His winning majority was made up of 210 Democrats and 18 Republicans, while 145 Republicans and 50 Democrats voted with Reagan.
O'Neill and other Democrats had been saying for several days that a series of revelations about administration actions in Central America, including news of plans for exercises of U.S. naval, air and ground forces of unprecedented size near Nicaragua, had dramatically increased congressional concern about Reagan's policies in the region.
In voting to prohibit undercover aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, the House acted in large part out of frustration with repeated efforts to limit the "secret war" through less drastic means, which were ignored by the administration. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.) and other Democrats charged that the CIA operation has become so large that it is uncontrollable and in violation of U.S. law. His contention was argued out in three days of extraordinary debate on the practicality and morality of supporting a U.S.-backed insurgency inside another country, and of abandoning it in midstream.
Republicans spoke of the heavy U.S. stakes in Central America, including the Panama Canal and a potential tidal wave of refugees that could follow a communist takeover of additional countries of the region.
None of the suggested compromises in more than a month of negotiations at the White House and on Capitol Hill, and none of the hedging in parliamentary maneuvers and proposed amendments debated and defeated yesterday, could get around the basic choice confronting the House, a number of speakers pointed out near the end of the debate.
"The key issue is exactly as has been described: do you or do you not want the covert action to continue?" said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), a senior member of both the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees.
"Our position is it would be a mistake to allow the covert action to continue" because "it is not working, it risks a wider war, it is opposed by the American people and it is against the American character," Hamilton said.
Boland spoke of the responsibility of the Intelligence Committee to oversee and check covert operations and of its frustration in being unable to impose limitations as the U.S.-backed insurgency in Nicaragua grew larger and more ambitious month after month since December, 1981.
In today's world, he said, "intelligence is an essential weapon, perhaps the most important weapon. But being secret, it also is the most dangerous weapon."
Boland pointed out that a worried Congress last December sought to curb the operation by forbidding covert aid "for the purpose" of overthrowing Nicaragua's Sandinista government or provoking a war between Nicaragua and Honduras. Those forbidden results are "where we are headed," warned Boland, who maintained that the "secret war" is illegal because last December's limitations have been violated.
But Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), argued that to order a halt to the covert operation would be "to pull out, and cut and run."
Saying that he has "my own view of the American character," Hyde said it is "to fight for freedom . . . , for the underdog," as the Nicaraguan insurgents are doing. One of the lessons of Vietnam, he said, is to stay behind the troops when they are in battle.
Rep. Daniel A. Mica (D-Fla.) spoke of the dubious fate of "thousands who aligned themselves with this cause" if U.S. aid were cut off. The Sandinistas, he declared, know the identity of each of their U.S.-backed opponents.
Mica and other Republicans proposed continuing U.S. support for the covert operation against the Nicaraguan government until that regime agrees to end its aid to leftist guerrillas in El Salvador and it is officially verified that the illicit help has stopped.
This concept, summarized as "symmetry," was backed by many of those who opposed a cutoff of U.S. aid, but it was voted down by the Democratic majority.