House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said yesterday that he favors holding the number of U.S. military advisers in El Salvador at 55, and indicated that he would oppose an increase if the Reagan administration moves in that direction.
Referring to the self-imposed "ceiling" of 55 advisers, Michel said, "My view is to hold to that number at that level, and I have made it quite clear to the administration." Michel was interviewed on "Meet the Press" (NBC, WRC).
Administration sources confirmed last week that the Pentagon has proposed to the White House that the "ceiling" be raised from 55 to 125 military advisers in El Salvador. President Reagan has said the request has not reached his desk.
"Now there's some apprehension and fear out there on the part of the American public," Michel said. "We don't want to get too far out in front."
Asked what he would do if the administration moved to more than double the number of American advisers in El Salvador, he said:
"Well, I have problems with that. . . and I don't intend to back away from that position because then, again, that says something."
Michel has been a chief congressional supporter of administration policy in Central America.
He said that the $80 million in overt military aid provided in an amendment approved by the House last week to cut off covert aid to anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua would be inadequate to stem the movement of arms between Nicaragua and leftist anti-government forces in El Salvador.
"It's going to cost considerably more, and I'm talking about hundreds of millions of dollars," Michel said.
Covert aid "has been fairly successful," Michel said, "and I would rather use indigenous forces that are there to do some of our bidding. . . rather than having the prospect of American troops actually engaged."
Michel also said he was "distressed" over the timing of last week's announcement of major U.S. naval, air and troop maneuvers in the region "just on the eve of our taking up the whole intelligence matter."
"In my judgment it didn't help us on that vote one bit," Michel said of the 228-to-195 vote defeat the administration suffered last Thursday on a Democratic congressional amendment to halt covert aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels.
In Portland, Maine, Vice President Bush asked the nation's governors for support on the administration's Central American policies.
"We are not sending U.S. troops into combat in Central America," Bush said. "We are not trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government."
Bush said there were "some encouraging signs" of a possible diplomatic solution.
Nicaraguan government officials recently made a six-point regional proposal "that we believe shows some genuine flexibility," he said. "Even Fidel Castro's most recent speeches conveyed a less belligerent tone and supported regional cooperation."
Wisconsin Gov. Anthony S. Earl (D), responding to Bush's remarks, said he questioned the argument "that somehow we are demonstrating our will to be reasonable by sending troops down there. It's awful tough stuff to believe."
Earl also asked why Bush made "no mention at all of our covert activities in Nicaragua."
Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt (D) said he doesn't think the administration is doing enough to support the peacemaking efforts of the four-nation Contadora group.
"I don't object to the show of force," he said. "But I'd like to see it balanced by a greater emphasis on regional security efforts."
Also commenting yesterday on the administration's involvement in Central America was U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who said she saw signs of progress in recent diplomatic efforts to lessen tensions in the region.
But Kirkpatrick, who is widely regarded as an architect of the administration's Latin policies, agreed that Reagan should "keep the heat on" in Nicaragua.
Negotiating efforts by the Contadora nations offer "a good deal of hope for a regional settlement . . .and we very much support that process," she said, referring to the peace initiative undertaken by Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela.
Kirkpatrick said these negotiations "are very much alive" despite the close of a Contadora conference Saturday without substantial new agreement.
In an interview on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM), she declined to answer directly when asked whether the administration would follow up on Cuban President Fidel Castro's call last week for the withdrawal of all foreign military advisers and an end to arms shipments to Central America.
But she said, "Any time you can get Fidel Castro to talk about negotiations and peace and an end to destabilization in the region, that's progress."
Kirkpatrick also defended the administration against the suggestion that its Central American policy relies too heavily on military action rather than on economic and humanitarian assistance to the region.
Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), appearing on "This Week With David Brinkley" (ABC, WJLA), was sharply critical of the administration's Central American policies, calling them "confusing."
Glenn, a Democratic presidential candidate, criticized Reagan's decision to begin large-scale military maneuvers in Central America, saying, "I don't think the American people were misled by the announcement that it was only a routine training exercise."