House Democratic Whip Thomas S. Foley said yesterday that President Reagan was speaking "nonsense" Thursday when he blamed the Nicaraguan incursion into Honduras on House rejection of his request for aid to the rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government.
Foley (D-Wash.) said Reagan's assertion, made at a political fund-raiser in New Orleans, was "contrary" to what congressional leaders of both parties were told at White House intelligence briefings shortly after the event was reported Monday.
"It's an effort to politicize the issue further," Foley said. "It's muddying the waters in a disagreeably partisan way."
Foley said administration briefers had said the incursion was probably prompted by the opposite assumption -- that military assistance would be given to the insurgents, known as contras or counterrevolutionaries.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave reporters a similar assessment that aides said also was based on White House briefings.
"It seems to me," Lugar said Tuesday, "that the Sandinistas either really weren't worried about the congressional vote or they assumed that some way the president was going to get his will in due course and wanted to preempt the field and leave him with nobody to support."
Speaking Thursday in New Orleans, Reagan took issue with what he said was one congressional opponent's assertion that that House vote was a "sign of peace and friendship."
"The Nicaraguan communists took the House vote as a sign all right," Reagan said. "They invaded the territory of Honduras with about 1,500 heavily armed troops, and then they lied about it."
A senior White House official yesterday stuck by the president's contention, as both administration strategists and House Democratic leaders looked toward the next battle over aid to the contras following narrow approval in the Senate Thursday of a modified request for $100 million assistance.
"They apparently figured, you know, it wasn't going to hurt them in the House, that it the aid package was going to be defeated," the official said of the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. "If they thought it would hurt them, they would never have gone that far, in our judgment."
White House aides maintained that the Democratic-controlled House would pass virtually intact the same modified aid request approved by the GOP-run Senate, 53 to 47. The House rejected the administration's initial request March 20 on a vote of 222 to 210.
"I think, although I'm not positive, that the compromise that we worked out with the Senate differs from our suggestion to the House in sufficient amount to be agreeable to those who were asking for more compromise in the House and didn't vote with us," a senior White House official said.
Foley and other House Democrats, including leaders of some ad hoc groups of key swing members, disagreed. "Although the vote was a bipartisan vote, there's still a very large minority looking for an alternative ," said Rep. James C. Slattery (D-Kan.). "That's a very small margin to be doing business with."
The version approved by the Senate is essentially a legislative translation of changes promised by Reagan in an 11th-hour effort to stave off defeat. Some House members have said they would have voted for the measure if the modifications had been in the form of legislation and not a letter.
White House officials contended yesterday that the alterations had gone beyond what those House members had sought and should be enough to win a majority this time.
Steve Patterson, press secretary for Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), who helped fashion a compromise for $27 million in nonlethal aid last year and was a key swing voter this year, said the next House vote would be held under different circumstances and the Senate modifications did not go far enough.
Last week's House vote was framed as an all-or-nothing package. The next vote, scheduled for April 15, will not be, and several alternatives may be on the floor. "It'll be a whole new ball game," Patterson said.
Moderate House Democrats and Republicans have expressed some of the same objections to the modified White House package that their Senate counterparts voiced.
Generally speaking, they want tighter congressional controls on spending to prod the administration into exhausting diplomatic efforts before any military assistance.
The White House, to the privately expressed disappointment of some Senate GOP leaders, declined to negotiate on key expressions of these issues, preferring instead to make just enough changes to win a majority vote.
House Republicans leaders say the reaction to the incursion should have the same effect as last year's trip to Moscow by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. That trip, taken after the House initially rejected military aid to the contras, helped swing votes for approval of humanitarian aid later.
Senate vote-counters in both parties said that aside from launching a few initial tremors, the reaction to the incursion changed few votes.
During preparations for last week's vote, House Republicans complained that White House efforts to seek a compromise undercut their attempts to line up votes. One key GOP aide said yesterday any similar overtures this time would have the same effect.