Spare a tear for the poor Sandinista official who has to explain to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega what happened in the House in the "showdown" on aid to the contras.

When the legislative farce was over, both Democrats and Republicans were saying they had "won." Actually, all that had occurred was that the Republicans, who have been berating the Democrats for stalling, had managed to defer a final decision until May 12 -- and maybe not even then if they can't get 218 votes for a discharge petition.

The Republicans, in the words of their leader, Robert H. Michel (Ill.), threw "a monkey wrench" into the works. They voted in droves for an amendment offered by Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) that would ban all aid to the contras, thereby exposing themselves to charges of "soft on communism."

But they think, they said at a post-tumult news conference, that they had outsmarted the Democrats. How? Here is where the Sandinista official will have to take a deep breath and talk about conspiracies and coups and the regular order -- and hope that it will sound better in Spanish.

House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D-Mass.), in their view, pulled a fast one when he put contra aid on a supplemental appropriations bill. There has been for the past 48 hours in the House more talk about "coupling" and "uncoupling" and "marrying" than at a singles bar. The Republicans feel O'Neill's maneuver was unspeakably unfair, because they know that the president will veto the spending bill.

They have railed and moaned at the burden of being a minority, of having to pass judgment on a question that they claim represents a cosmic clash between the forces of good and evil in this hemisphere -- in a money measure. They could not concentrate on the great matter at hand because it was buried in, to use Michel's words, "a great busting barrel of rancid pork."

Last week, they began scheming to confound the Democrats. Their strategy was to end the argument by putting Hamilton over the top and seeking to fight another day by getting a "clean" bill for $100 million in aid onto the floor via discharge petition.

They had the supreme pleasure of watching the Democrats watch the scoreboard during the vote on Hamilton, which during the raucous roll call became the Cinderella of all contra-aid bills. The Democrats, baffled and stupefied, began huddling and murmuring, consternation written on their faces. The Republicans cackled and chortled like children watching someone light an exploding cigar.

But at their "victory" news conference, questions were asked. Why had they called off the showdown if they could have won it? Well, the supplementary appropriations bill was simply not the right way to go about it.

Their policy chairman, Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), insisted that they could have also have beaten the "compromise" offered by Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), which would require them to vote yet again on the issue.

Their plan, and the Sandinista may wish to skip this part, is to attach their bill to a year-old bill of McCurdy's -- he collaborated with them for "humanitarian" aid -- and then amend it.

They think that they can get the 65 Democrats who voted seriously against Hamilton's ban on aid to sign their discharge petition.

But how can they expect to pass military aid in three weeks, when they lost just three weeks ago? "It's a different world," according to them.

By that, they mean that the country, applauding the president's action in Libya, will swing to his view on Nicaragua. GOP Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) said, straining to make the connection, that what transpired was "a message similar to the one delivered to Libya two days ago."

But the connection was never made on Capitol Hill. Democrats fretted about a "two-front war." Instead of the pat on the back they expected for their impeccably bipartisan conduct on Libya, they got a nasty reminder from the White House that Ortega gets Qaddafi's charity.

The public will not buy at all. Yes on Libya, no on Nicaragua. The Great Explainer cannot delete their memories of Vietnam. They hate jungle wars; they know military aid is followed by U.S. troops. Two to one, they say no, according to the latest polls.

Their intransigence has left the Republican House leader hinting that the voters are dumb. "It is not an issue which is readily absorbed and assimilated." In other words, the voters are dumb. When you don't have the public, you go for heavy-handed legerdemain.

Maybe the Sandinista should just say to Ortega, "Look, they gave you a little more time. It's the best you can hope for."