President Reagan, who has made his political living by cutting welfare programs, may be on the point of creating one in Central America.

"Aid to Families of Dependent Contras," it could be called.

Nobody at the White House or State Department is claiming credit for the idea, but desperate bureaucrats are floating it. If it goes into effect, and stranger things have happened, Central Intelligence Agency agents could be toiling through the jungles with monthly checks for the families of the mercenaries we hired to harass Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

The White House was warned weeks ago that the "contra" war was on the ropes. What hurt most recently was that its dilemma was stated with striking succinctness by the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a conservative with a near-perfect record of support for the president.

He laid it on the line in an appearance at the National Press Club:

"Aid to the contras is not viable because it is no longer covert and because Congress will probably not continue to fund it," he said.

On the other hand, overt aid has no future, either. "That would be very close to declaring war, and there's no consensus in the public for that," Lugar said.

The following day, Secretary of State George P. Shultz had breakfast with Lugar. Afterward Lugar said he had not meant that nothing should be done to bring the Sandinistas to heel; he added vaguely that other countries might come up with the funds needed to keep the contras going.

The next day, Reagan stepped forward with a mighty blast at the Sandinistas. He charged them with "armed subversion," called for support for the "freedom fighters" and added the name of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to those pariahs, like Fidel Castro and Yassir Arafat, who are on Nicaragua's side.

The Sandinistas were entertaining the prime minister of Iran at the time. With their usual clumsiness, they had him over at a moment when they were enjoying a distinct advantage in world opinion. The United States had announced a boycott of the World Court case involving the CIA mines discovered in the harbors of Nicaragua.

There is a nonsinister explanation for Nicaragua's Iranian connection. When we cut sugar imports, Nicaragua turned to Iran as a market. The Nicaraguans also buy oil from Iran, but not arms, they say. Reagan seems to thinks everything they do in Nicaragua is his business, because they are "exporting revolution" -- a charge they deny and he has yet to prove.

Public relations is not their bag, and neither is diplomacy. One ambassador, Franciso Fiallos, absconded to the contras, allegedly taking a large amount of cash with him. Another they proposed, Nora Astorga, was rejected by the United States. As a revolutionary, she lured a Somozista general to her boudoir where he was murdered. Their foreign minister, Miguel D'Escoto, who continues to serve in defiance of the pope's ban on priestly politicians, lives in eye-opening splendor amid the general misery of his countrymen.

Few in Congress wish to speak for the Sandinistas. But the contras have won no hearts and minds, either. As long as Congress did not know what was going on, it went along with the right-wing fantasy of a "secret" war against a Marxist regime in the hemisphere -- although the House was suspicious and doubtful almost from the first. But the discovery of the mines blew their cover, and a majority in both houses understands the truth of the Lugar formulation. The contras are not enough; U.S. troops would be too much.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, proposed investigating widespread allegations of contra atrocities. Many observers brought back reports of kidnaping, murder and torture of peasants and the routine destruction of coffee plantations, health clinics and schools.

The new chairman of the intelligence committee, Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.), threw cold water on Leahy's scheme, saying that the committee had better things to do. But Durenberger opposes continuation of covert aid. He is for open aid to the contras.

Leahy has warned that if Reagan asks for the $14 million, he will insist on hearings. Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, says that the contras' conduct "will be explored in some detail" in the House.

White House spokesman Larry Speakes says the White House is going to negotiate with Congress in a search for "a different approach."

Negotiating with the Sandinistas, and even learning to live with them, would be "different," of course, and much less expensive than adding to the welfare rolls, not to mention starting an unpopular war.