House Republicans, resorting to a high-risk parliamentary maneuver, yesterday forced President Reagan's $100 million aid package for the Nicaraguan rebels to be pulled from the floor for at least four weeks.
The GOP move, which appeared to catch the Democratic leadership off guard, short-circuited the debate on contra aid and exposed again the deep divisions in Congress over this issue.
Republican leaders announced they were beginning a new process by which they hope to return the aid issue, in a form they and the Reagan administration support, to the House floor by May 12.
To do this, the Republicans will have to gather 218 signatures -- a majority of the House -- on a petition that would force consideration of another legislative vehicle dealing with Central America and then amend this measure to authorize the $100 million in aid.
The complex maneuvering climaxed days of legislative jockeying over Reagan's request for $70 million in military aid and $30 million in nonlethal "humanitarian" assistance for the counterrevolutionary rebels, known as contras, fighting the government of Nicaragua.
Democrats charged that the GOP parliamentary tactic was an admission that there was not majority support for the Reagan policy. "They didn't think they could win the fight, so they took a legislative dive," said House Majority Whip Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.).
The Republicans retorted that the maneuver was a protest of the "fraudulent" ground rules for this week's debate that were adopted by the Democratic majority and would ultimately put them in a stronger position to win the increasingly bitter contra aid dispute.
"There was no way around it except simply to throw a monkey wrench into the procedure to upset the apple cart for the moment," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.).
Gleeful Republicans were clearly delighted by the chance to stun the Democratic leadership with an unexpected parliamentary move. Milling about on the House floor, they laughed and applauded -- while the Democrats watched in apparent initial confusion -- as the strategy was implemented. But the Democrats later said that for all its cleverness, the ploy did nothing to advance Reagan's policy of providing military aid to the contras.
The Republicans sprung their surprise on a proposal by Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) that would authorize $27 million to aid refugees in Central America but provide no funds to the contra rebels. As lawmakers watched, all but one Republican voted for the liberal Democratic measure, which was adopted by 361 to 66.
Under the ground rules for the debate, the effect of this move was to prevent the House from considering another proposal, sponsored by Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), which had been expected to be the focus of yesterday's legislative showdown.
The McCurdy proposal was an amendment to the Senate-passed version of the contra aid package, which is supported by most House Republicans and the administration. The Senate bill would provide $25 million in aid immediately to the contras and allow the funds to be used for the acquisition of "defensive" weapons such as surface-to-air missiles.
The Senate bill would also automatically release the remaining $75 million in aid in July if peace negotiations were not under way by then and if Congress did not to adopt a resolution of disapproval. Such a resolution would be subject to a presidential veto.
The McCurdy amendment, strongly opposed by House Republicans and the administration, would make two critical changes in the Senate measure: it would allow the release of $30 million in aid immediately, but bar its use for the purchase of any weapons, and it would require an affirmative vote by both chambers of Congress before the remaining aid could be provided to the contras.
Republican leaders said that both political and policy considerations lay behind their decision to resort to a high-risk strategy of short-circuiting this week's contra aid debate.
The ground rules adopted by the House for the debate provided that any contra aid package that was approved -- whether the Senate-passed version, the McCurdy plan or the Hamilton refugee aid proposal -- would automatically be incorporated into the fiscal 1986 supplemental appropriations bill, which the House is expected to approve in a few days.
The administration and House Republicans argue that this would be next to useless because the contras will likely be crushed by Nicaragua's Sandinista government before the appropriations bill clears the Senate and is enacted by Congress, probably some time in the summer. GOP leaders said they calculated that they had little to lose in disrupting yesterday's vote and delaying a decisive vote on the issue until next month.
The president has also threatened to veto the $1.7 billion spending bill. One reason House Democratic leaders pulled the Hamilton proposal off the House floor after it was unexpectedly adopted was that to include this measure in the appropriations bill would only increase the chances of a veto.
GOP political calculations center on a key group of moderate-to-conservative Democrats, many of them from the South, who helped craft the McCurdy plan and were expected to vote for it yesterday. By denying these Democrats a chance to go on record in favor of some sort of aid to the contras, said Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.), the Republicans intend to keep pressure on these Democrats to vote for the administration aid package if it is forced back onto the House floor next month.
"Right now, they are still on the hook," Cheney said.
For the strategy to work, this key group of Democrats will have to join Republicans in signing a "discharge petition" to force the issue back to the floor. McCurdy said yesterday he did not think he would sign the petition, but that he and others would wait before finally deciding.
"We're not on the hook," he said. "We're not going to be beaten into submission by either side."
House Democratic leaders expressed confidence that the discharge petition would not succeed. They also said they will allow another vote on the contra aid issue in connection with the Defense Department authorization bill, which is due to be considered in June.
The Republican strategy was hatched late last week in consultation with the White House. Only a handful of House GOP leaders knew about it until midafternoon yesterday, when Republican lawmakers caucused and the strategy was explained.
It still surprised some of them as much as it did the Democrats. "Holy mackeral," Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.) said as he wandered onto the House floor and saw the electronic vote-counting board recording a sweeping victory for the Hamilton proposal.