House approval of $48 million in humanitarian aid for the Contra rebels and for children injured in Nicaragua's civil war marks the first time in more than five years that lawmakers have been able to set aside partisan divisions on the issue.
The House voted 345-70 late Wednesday to approve the aid package and send what the chamber's leaders said was a strong signal of support to the rebels and the leftist Sandinista government, which are trying to forge a long-term cease-fire.The winning margin came from 179 Democratic votes and 166 GOP votes. The largest group of dissenters seemed to be liberal Democrats, many of whom oppose any form of Contra aid on principle.
The House action sent the aid bill to the Senate, where Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said he planned to take it up today. It remained unclear whether Senate leaders could get the unanimous consent needed to bring the measure up quickly for a vote before Congress leaves on a 10-day Easter recess.
House Speaker Jim Wright, noting years of bitter battles over what U.S. policy in the region should be, called the bipartisan House vote remarkable and perhaps a turning point for Congress on the issue. The vote was occasioned by last week's agreement on a 60-day cease fire between the two warring sides in Nicaragua.
"There has been a major turning point in Central America. They decided they wanted to make peace," Wright said.
In the past, Contra aid votes have typically been bitterly fought and decided by a margin of a just a few votes. The last time the House came together in a strong bipartisan display was Dec. 8, 1982, when it voted 411-0 to bar the CIA from trying to overthrow the Sandinista government.
Officials of the Nicaraguan Resistance, the Miami-based political arm of the rebels, were elated. "This is what we have been waiting for, for a long time a broad bipartisan aid package for the resistance," said Alfredo Cesar, a director of the resistance. It sends "a strong political message to Central America in general and to the world that the United States is not abandoning the resistance fighters in the mountains."