Despite President Reagan's often passionate words on behalf of helping rebels in Nicaragua, Congress made it clear this week that it won't go along, at least not yet. While the Senate voted to back the administration, the House turned down the White House request for $14 million in aid and was still debating two compromise plans at this writing.
But even with a House-approved compromise, procedural roadblocks will probably keep the President from his goal of immediate release of the money for the contra forces in Nicaragua.
The original request is ``dead,'' said Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas on Wednesday. He said the Senate could ``start over'' with a House version, but he added that the issue was not his top priority.
``We're going to do the budget first,'' said Senator Dole, as the Senate began what could be 10 or more days of work on the 1986 federal budget. ``We just don't want [the contra aid] to get in the way of the budget,'' the GOP leader told reporters.
The basic problem confronting the Reagan administration is that for all of the President's zeal in trying to help the rebels fight the Marxist government in Nicaragua, most members of Congress do not share his convictions.
``I think President Reagan's original package would have gotten 35 votes,'' said Sen. David Durenberger, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Tuesday night. Mr. Reagan won a 53-to-46 majority in the GOP Senate only by making last-minute concessions in a letter to senators, said the Minnesota Republican. Reagan promised to limit aid to ``humanitarian'' supplies and step up diplomatic efforts in Central America.
``This is the old Vietnam syndrome,'' said House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. after the House soundly defeated the President's original request for aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.
The lawmakers were ``sending a message to the president,'' said the Massachusetts Democrat. ``They don't want our boys down there. That's what it's all about.''
Even Republicans conceded that the public has not yet bought Reagan's policy for Central America. Worries about communism in Nicaragua are ``not front and center back home,'' said Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, a Republican who recently toured her homestate of Kansas.
``People say, `Let's just stay out of it,' '' when they discuss Central America, she said in an interview.
Staunch Reagan supporter Sen. William Armstrong, telephoned Reagan officials Wednesday to complain that the administration has failed to sell its case for Central America. ``The $14 million'' issue is a ``sideshow,'' said the Colorado Republican in an interview. ``The question is what is our policy toward that government'' in Nicaragua, he said, adding that once the policy is set, Reagan officials should go ``armed with facts'' to the public.
Although he said that he was convinced that Nicaragua is a threat to American security, Senator Armstrong said that ``it doesn't really matter for a bunch of people at the seat of government to come to that conclusion'' unless the public is persuaded. So far, he said, the people ``aren't convinced.''
The President won over some lawmakers, however. Ten Senate Democrats, nearly all Southerners, voted with the President, amid some criticism of two freshmen Democrats who traveled to Nicaragua and back with a peace plan from President Daniel Ortega.