In the latest installment, Republican stalwarts in the House saw that the contra aid amendment likely to pass was unsatisfactory and, furthermore, that any amendment passed would ride an appropriations bill moving slowly toward an eventual crash on a presidential veto. So to keep the possibility of aid alive, and to keep it alive in a form favored by the administration, the leadership of the Republican minority deftly stole control of the issue from the Democrats and set out on a parliamentary course intended to secure a straight up-or-down vote in May.

The public opinion polls show continuing broad disapproval of American support for intervention in Nicaragua. Yet President Reagan's weight in Washington is substantial. Votes in Congress remain cliffhangers in which swing locs attaching strings to aid dictate the outcome. This is the pattern that Republicans in the House now seek to upset. Unlike the Democrats, they do not want a result that reflects the House's ambivalence. They want a clear-cut victory for their president -- the full $100 million sought, without strings -- and to get it they seem prepared to risk defeat. Their calculation is that they can pick off enough Democrats fearful of being held accountable for putting the contras out of business.

It is commonly said in these foreign policy battles that bipartisan compromise is the statesmanlike way. But the up-or-down vote that Republicans seek rejects a bipartisan compromise solution. The Democrats by their legislative maneuvering had done pretty much the same thing, offering the president a narrow and -- to him -- unpalatable range of options: one was for no military aid at all, and a second was for some circumscribed aid now, some but possibly no more aid later. Bipartisanship, this time around, seems a nonstarter.

In the circumstances, the Republicans have a good case for demanding a "clean" vote, one which may trouble swing Democrats politically but which fits the realities on the ground in Cen- tral America: contras yes or contras no. At this point, there is really no room left to have it both ways.

Our answer has been and remains: contras no. The chances are too slight that on their own they can unseat the Sandinistas, and the costs of the effort appear too great. That leaves the United States to rely on and support the program of the Latin democracies to build a security fence outside Nicaragua and then to pursue available ways to soften Sandinista rule inside.