House Democrats sought yesterday to sharply restrict new U.S. aid for Nicaragua's contra rebels, bringing Republican threats of an all-out floor battle.
The fight arose as the lawmakers prepared to take up today a short-term spending bill designed to keep the government running from next Tuesday, when the current money will run out, through Dec. 16.
The measure contained a $3.2 million extension of nonlethal aid to the contras, and Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) sought to make the aid available only to the extent consistent with a five-nation Central American peace accord that takes effect today.
The Democratic-controlled House Rules Committee voted along party lines to allow Bonior to offer such a restriction as an amendment to the short-term spending bill today, and Bonior acknowledged the issue would provoke a major fight.
Bonior said his amendment would bar the Central Intelligence Agency from continuing to act as the delivery agent for any new contra assistance. Instead, it would have to be delivered by some neutral international organization such as the Red Cross or a church group, he said.
Without such a restriction, the United States would be in a position of violating the peace accord, which bars outside military or logistical help to rebels, Bonior said.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) said insistence on the restriction would only stir the controversy over U.S. support for the contras, who are fighting Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.
"There need not be a hassle on this short-term bill," Michel told the committee. "But you're going to get one -- in spades."
If Democrats force the issue and prevail, Michel said, he would recommend that President Reagan veto the spending bill, raising the prospect that the government could run out of money Tuesday.
The rebels are operating on leftover money from last year's $100 million allocation, which included military aid, and a $3.5 million infusion provided in an existing short-term spending measure.
Michel argued that aid should be extended again to keep up pressure on the Sandinistas to carry out democratic reforms. He also said it is necessary to retain CIA authority to make airdrops to the rebels in the field.