The president claims that immediate military aid for the Nicaraguan contra rebels is a "national security issue of paramount importance," but that we should not even think about sending in American troops. He can't have it both ways. The president has created the impression that support for the contras is a policy in itself, rather than an instrument of policy.

At the same time, the House Democratic leadership cannot walk away with clean hands; defeating the president is a tactic, not a policy.

Some of us would like to create a bipartisan policy on Central America, but our time and patience are growing short. The administration has wasted time by not seriously pursuing negotiations, by failing to build public support, by encouraging divisiveness among resistance groups, and by alienating allies on Capitol Hill and in Central America. This cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that repression in Nicaragua has become institutionalized and is getting worse. But it means that if there is to be any aid package, the president will have to live with more, rather than less, legislative direction.

I believe the following elements address some key issues and, with the president's support, could pass Congress:

Central America peace process. We have had no way to judge why no prog achieving objectives that both sides have publicly endorsed. It is time to make a serious effort or end the charade. We should provide $5 million, with no strings attached, to the Contadora group to further efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement. The governments would be encouraged to make regular public reports on the likelihood of achieving an agreement and the obstacles encountered. In addition, we should create a bipartisan group to monitor the negotiations on behalf of Congress, with outside members appointed by the speaker and the Senate majority leader.

Regional economic development. We need a commitment for full funding for aid to the democratic governments of Central America, as recommended by the Kissinger Commission. Our message should be that we are looking for long-term economic development, not just short-term military advantage. Under the president's FY87 budget, for example, Guatemala would receive only 80 percent of the amount he is requesting for contras. Is this the way we reward new democratic governments?

Nonlethal assistance. We should provide $50 million, over 18 months, to the democratic resistance for purposes authorized by current law and for training.

Additional assistance. e should put an additional $50 million in escrow for at least 90 days. If, after that time, the president certifies to Congress that regional peace negotiations have failed to produce an agreement, that the opposition has been unable to achieve a cease-fire and serious negotiations, and that he is unable to pursue in good faith a negotiated settlement, either through the Contadora process or bilateral talks, such funds would become available unless blocked by Congress within five days. Any such aid would be suspended if Nicaragua implemented a cease-fire, began direct talks with the opposition and lifted restrictions on the freedom of press, assembly and religion.

As in the president's proposal, funds would be reprogrammed from money already appropriated to the Department of Defense. Funds would be available to all major resistance forces supporting the recent peace proposal made to the Nicaraguan government by six opposition parties inside Nicaragua. It includes: an immediate cease-fire; amnesty for all political and related offenses; an end to the emergency law; negotiations among all Nicaraguan political parties; a new and full free process of elections; an invitation to international organizations to guarantee a free election; and support for the Contadora process. Assistance to UNO, the largest contra group, would be conditioned upon specific internal reforms dealing with human rights and command and control of military forces.

In an interview published in The Post last Sunday, Arturo Cruz, a director of UNO, stated his group's willingness to accept a delay in military aid and to delegate to the opposition parties inside Nicaragua for a dialogue with the Nicaraguan government. President Reagan should support this initiative by giving serious negotiating instructions to his new special envoy, Philip Habib, and by otherwise fulfilling his pledge to pursue a diplomatic, rather than a military, solution to the conflict.

In his address to the nation on Sunday, the president will set the tone for the upcoming House and Senate debates. He should move it from the gutter to a higher plane. If he chooses partisan rhetoric over bipartisan realism, he will destroy any chances of salvaging a constructive policy from the current mess.