The Democratic-controlled House refused yesterday to support any plan -- either one backed by President Reagan or a Democratic alternative -- to aid anti-government Nicaraguan rebels, Nicaraguan refugees or a prospective peace process.
In a series of parliamentary cliffhangers, the House first endorsed, 219 to 206, a Democratic alternative to the Reagan program that would have provided $14 million in aid not to the rebels but to refugees outside Nicaragua and to help finance supervision of any future peace treaty in the region.
It then rejected, 215 to 213, a Republican substitute backed by the president that would have kept the $14 million as aid to the rebels but stipulated that none of it be used for military purposes.
But, when it came time to give the measure final approval, the House voted, 303 to 123, to kill the entire bill.
The turnaround came in part among liberal Democrats, who originally supported the Democratic alternative only for defensive reasons -- to make more palatable legislation they basically disliked. Republicans ultimately also voted against the final legislation in a protest against a measure they felt abandoned the rebels.
The votes came one day after action in both chambers on a watered-down Reagan proposal to aid the rebels. The Senate accepted it, but the House rejected it, and yesterday's House votes were on alternatives to that plan. Congress voted last year to cut off aid to the rebels funded through the Central Intelligence Agency.
"We're back where we wanted to be in the first place with no funding for the rebels , even though we had to take this circuitous route to get there," said Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), one liberal who voted for the Democratic plan but then to kill the entire measure.
The Democrats' victory could leave them politically exposed, however. Their alternative, proposed by Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), was designed in part to provide cover for party members who not only oppose Reagan's program of arming and aiding the rebels but also do not like Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government and did not want to be blamed for aiding it.
In the vote on the Republican alternative, 201 Democrats and 14 Republicans voted against, while 46 Democrats and 167 Republicans were in favor.
Reagan said last night that he is "deeply disappointed" by the House vote and added, "This kind of action damages national security and foreign policy goals."
Yesterday's votes by no means end debate on the issue.
"I intend to return to the Congress again and again to seek a policy that supports peace and democracy in Nicaragua. The United States will continue to work for these goals," Reagan said.
The president could forward another request for more aid. The administration has requested $28 million in military assistance for the rebels next year, according to intelligence sources.
"This doesn't end it. I wish it did," said House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who had worked strenuously to defeat further aid to the rebels and for whom yesterday's votes were a personal ictory.
O'Neill said the votes mean that lawmakers "want a change in policy down there, no more gunboat diplomacy."
O'Neill said Reagan had telephoned him yesterday to ask for support and to complain that O'Neill was pressuring Democrats to oppose the president.
According to Democratic leadership officials, O'Neill told Reagan that he had no desire to "embarrass" the president and would take the legislation off yesterday's calendar if Reagan wanted it. White House officials later called to say Reagan did not want the vote postponed.
Before the votes, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) eceived a letter from the president in which Reagan said Michel's alternative "meets most of the objectives in my effort to promote a dialogue within Nicaragua . . . which is essential for peace in Central America. Rather than abandon the opposition, the Michel proposal would help to sustain it, giving peace a chance."
The alternative was similar to the Reagan proposal passed Tuesday by the Senate, 53 to 46. The House then rejected it, 248 to 140.
Michel's alternative would provide $14 million in nonlethal assistance to the rebels for food, clothing and medicine but not for arms, munitions or other weapons. It would be administered through the Agency for International Development.
It called for peace negotiations between the rebels and the Sandinista government and encouraged Reagan to impose a trade embargo on Nicaragua.
The Democratic alternative ended all funding for the rebels. Instead, it would have allocated $10 million to the International Red Cross or the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for refugee programs outside Nicaragua and $4 million to Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela to help them monitor and implement any peace treaty signed as a result of their Contadora peace efforts.
The House votes occurred after unusually active lobbying by the Democratic leadership, led by O'Neill, who regularly refers to the rebels as "butchers and maimers."
As the leadership pressed wavering Democrats during the floor debate, Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) said, the vote had become "win one for the 'Tipper.' That seems to be the name of the game."
Just before the vote on the Republican alternative, Michel took the floor with an emotional appeal to Democrats. "Damn the politics. Let's do what's right for the country," he said.
That vote turned out to be the closest as, for the entire 15-minute voting period, the tally showed opponents and supporters never more than a few votes apart.
In the last few minutes, as the tally teetered back and forth, O'Neill, who as speaker rarely votes, pick up a red "no" card to cast in case of a tie. When opponents moved ahead by two votes as time ran out, he did not have to vote.
Visibly grim, Michel, who had been poring over his own voting list, slapped the back of chair near him when the narrow defeat became apparent.
Yesterday's debate was more emotional and tension-filled than the daylong debate Tuesday.
Supporters of the rebels argued yesterday that ending even humanitarian aid would kill chances for democracy in Nicaragua and decrease the chance for peaceful settlement of the Nicaraguan conflict. They said it would leave the rebels, who they said deserve U.S. backing, out in the cold.
"This bill reminds me of a dog with emotional problems. It barks at its friends and wags its tail at its enemies," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) of the Democratic alternative that would end aid but provide funds for refugee assistance and implementation of any future peace treaty.
"It's disarmament, it's surrender," he said, adding that it sends the message that "we won't help you fight, we'll help you flee."
House Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said adoption of the Democratic alternative would send a message to Latin America and elsewhere that "the only good freedom fighter is an ex-freedom fighter living in exile."
But opponents argued that military efforts through the rebels had failed to bring peace and that diplomatic efforts must be emphasized. In addition, they said, any aid to the rebels, even only for food, clothing and medicine as specified in the Michel alternative, would prolong the fighting.
"We would not be here today debating this resolution if military pressure on the Sandinistas had worked," said Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.), former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
"What sort of humanitarian aid can we expect from this administration?" Mineta asked. "With its track record, you will see humanitarian aid that includes helicopters outfitted for the medical evacuation of soldiers. Never mind that the helicopters may be outfitted with rocket pods purchased from another source."
Barnes, who helped draft the Democratic alternative, said the Republican proposal of humanitarian aid was a misnomer. "What we are voting on here is logistical support for an army," he said.
Barnes said the Sandinistas have said that, if the United States stops funding the contras, they would call a cease-fire, limit the number of foreign advisers in Nicaragua, lift censorship laws and enact other democratic reforms sought by the United States.
"I suggest to this chamber we find out if it's true," Barnes said. "We're going to be back here looking at this again in a few months. Let's take this opportunity to call the Sandinistas' bluff."