President Reagan yesterday attacked a Democratic proposal on Nicaragua as a "shameful surrender" to that nation's Sandinista government, and charged that Soviet military personnel have entered a battle zone where the Sandinistas are fighting the insurgent "contras."
In response, Rep. James R. Jones (D-Okla.) called the Democratic alternative a "middle course" for Nicaragua that would "move diplomatic pressure for peace to the front burner, and move military pressure to the back burner, but keep both on the stove."
The president offered no evidence to support his charge that Soviet personnel are in a Nicaraguan battle zone.
A White House official said that Soviet "military people" were identified in the town of Ocatal, nine miles south of the Honduran border, but said the Soviets probably were there in an advisory role and not as combatants. Reagan often has accused Nicaragua of getting Soviet and Cuban military support.
"Let me speak plainly," he said in his weekly radio talk. "Any proposal that abandons over 15,000 members of a democratic resistance to communists is not a compromise, it is a shameful surrender."
The rhetorical jockeying came as two senators reported a last-minute Nicaraguan offer of a cease-fire in return for a cutoff of support for the contras, only days before Congress is to vote on Reagan's request to release $14 million in aid to the insurgents. Congress last year blocked Reagan from funneling the money through the Central Intelligence Agency to the rebels.
To avoid defeat on his earlier plan for military aid, Reagan offered last week to use the money for nonmilitary or "humanitarian" purposes for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The aid would be coupled with negotiations between the rebels and the Sandinistas.
Reagan is scheduled to work out details of this compromise plan with a bipartisan group of senators today at the White House. The congressional voting is expected Tuesday.
Yesterday, Reagan turned his fire on a Democratic alternative sponsored by Jones, Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) and Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), among others, including some GOP moderates.
Their plan would provide $10 million for "humanitarian" aid to Nicaraguan refugees through the International Committee of the Red Cross or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and $4 million to Mexico, Columbia, Panama and Venezuela to enforce any regional peace pact those nations' Contadora process might produce.
Reagan charged that the Democratic plan would force the contras to "abandon their struggle to liberate Nicaragua" and turn them "into homeless refugees . . . . "
"If Congress ever approves such a proposal, it would hasten the consolidation of Nicaragua as a communist, terrorist arsenal and it would give a green light to Soviet-sponsored aggression throughout the American mainland, ultimately threatening our own security," Reagan said.
The president also attacked House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) for saying Reagan's plan was a "dirty trick."
"How could church-mediated peace negotiations be a dirty trick?" he asked. "Do they really think the church would cooperate in a trick?"
A spokesman for O'Neill, Christopher Matthews, said the speaker was referring, when he made the remark two weeks ago, to a belief that Reagan was "fraudulently" proposing to use "humanitarian aid to help a rebel army."
Reagan warned yesterday that the Sandinistas might "put forth an 11th-hour, so-called peace proposal" that he said would be a "cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion and our Congress." A White House official said the remark was meant to preempt a "tactical ploy" by the Sandinistas, such as lifting press curbs, before Tuesday's vote.
Reagan said the Sandinistas, together with "their misguided sympathizers" in this country, "are running a sophisticated disinformation campaign of lies and distortion."
Jones said the sponsors of the Democratic alternative "disagree with those in the Reagan administration who want a hard-line military solution" in Nicaragua, "and we disagree with some in our own party who feel that we have no business in Nicaragua at all."
"Let there be no mistake," he said. "We Democrats oppose the Sandinista government's repression of freedoms, its military ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union, its effort to export war to its neighbors. If, and only if, progress is being made toward peace and democracy, Congress will consider aid to Nicaragua," he said.
Two other Democrats, Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and John F. Kerry (Mass.), met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto yesterday in Managua. As they prepared to return to the United States, the senators said, Ortega gave them a memo that said Nicaragua would agree to a cease-fire if the United States promises to stop aiding the contras.
They said he also was willing to restore civil liberties and end censorship in return for an aid cutoff.
A White House spokesman responded that Reagan believed the Sandinistas should "deal with their own people and not deal through the United States."