The fate of so-called secret United States aid to rebels in Nicaragua hangs suspended in midair on Capitol Hill, while election-year politics and hardening positions have brought action to a standstill.
In a 58 to 38 vote this week, the Senate supported spending $28 million next year to help the ''contra'' fighters in their war against the leftist government of Nicaragua.
Meanwhile, the House has twice voted to halt the ''covert'' assistance. ''I think the House is stronger than it has been at any time on it,'' said House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts on Tuesday. ''There is a strong feeling that supply of the contras is wrong.''
Caught in-between is not only future aid but a proposal to send $21 million this year to the insurgents in Nicaragua. ''The money ran out in May,'' Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska, a supporter of the aid money, said. He added that the pipeline for aid still exists, however. ''I'm not sure we're the only source of support for the contras,'' he said.
Aid to the rebels has long been controversial, and the House has opposed it in the past and then backed down twice and approved the funding on final votes. But since the news leaked early this year that the US had a role in mining Nicaraguan harbors, opposition has stiffened.
''Twice we've caved in, but we're not going to do it anymore,'' says House majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas.
Moreover, the House Democrats have forged a potent political weapon for the dispute in the form of 100,000 summer youth jobs. The ''urgent supplemental'' that includes immediate aid for contras also has $100 million for summer employment and money for nutrition programs. House leaders are asking to split the contra money off the bill and pass the remainder.
Speaker O'Neill told reporters he was sending a ''message'' to President Reagan: ''School is out; it is time to put our young people to work.''
That message, perhaps more clearly intended for voters, is that the Reagan White House cares more about aiding foreign rebels than Americans at home.
Although leaders of the two houses may find a compromise route for passing the summer-jobs money, the outlook is dim for resolving the impasse over the contras. Senator Stevens reported that at a meeting Tuesday the President continued to hope that the House would shift its stand.
A senior Reagan administration official, speaking to a conference of reporters last week, described the contra pressure as the key to containing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Their efforts have ''reduced the arms flow'' from Nicaragua to the leftist insurgents in El Salvador.
Further, the official held that Nicaraguan aid to Salvadoran guerrillas is a major factor in the Central American conflict. He called assertions to the contrary a result of ''misinformation.'' But he said that proof of the arms flow from Nicaragua was classified information.
Representative Wright counters that ''I have always supposed there was a collusion of Nicaragua and the El Salvador rebels.'' But he says that arguments on both side of the question have ''been exaggerated'' and that the issue is, ''If we stand for local self-determination, then we've got to believe in it for Nicaragua.''
Wright also maintains that the contra actions have had a negative impact on the Sandinistas. ''I have seen their attitude harden and stiffen'' he says, tracing their military buildup to US threats.