President Reagan Friday signed a hard-fought-for $48 million package providing non-lethal aid for the Nicaraguan Contra rebels and the Central American peace process.
Reagan signed the bill in the White House residence before leaving for California for Easter vacation. He also signed an executive order implementing the legislation, but he made no personal statement concerning the measure.There was no real joy in Congress over the measure.
The House mostly covered up its bitter debate of seven years in voting 345-70 in favor of the bill, and though the Senate voted 87-7 Thursday to send the package to Reagan, there were harsh statements about a sellout and a lack of political will.
"For my part, it is too little, too late, too limited, and too loaded with the stench of betrayal," declared Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., before voting for the measure. "This proposal is nothing more than a Band-Aid on the conscience of Congress."
Critics such as Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., warned that if U.S. armed forces ever are called in to fight Soviet-backed subversion in Central America, the blame could be traced to Capitol Hill.
The pivotal moment, said Boren, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, came when the House voted down new military aid for the Contras Feb. 3.
"We are not talking about Vietnam, half a world away," he said of a possible future conflict. "We are talking about countries that border us."
The Contras and Nicaragua's Sandinista government Friday were in the first hours of a proposed 60-day cease-fire they negotiated last week in Sapoa, Nicaragua. The agreement provides the Contras may receive food, clothing, medicine, and shelter from the United States, but no military aid.
Critics said Congress, in approving the non-lethal assistance as well as $10 million to support an independent commission to observe the cease-fire, was walking away from the problem of a Soviet-armed and Cuban-advised Nicaragua.
"It's a feel-good move, a cover-my-hide-move, because of the people of the other House having betrayed the cause of freedom and attempting to camouflage that betrayal by a so-called humanitarian aid to the Contras," Helms said.
Senate Democratic leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia disagreed, saying the aid package would maintain pressure on the Sandinistas to work for peace and democracy in Nicaragua by keeping the Contras together.
Byrd called on Reagan's administration to talk directly with the Sandinistas to "put them to the test" on their pledge not to subvert their neighbors.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said Nicaraguans have a chance to settle their own problems, and the United States should be willing to lend them assistance without the threat of military pressure on Managua.
The Feb. 3 House rejection of Reagan's $36.3 million military and non-lethal aid proposal resulted in the Feb. 29 shutoff of the pipeline of American arms and supplies financed by a $100 million appropriation in 1986.