The 10-hour debate had been one of the most impassioned in the House of Representatives’ recent history. As speaker after speaker couched debate in apocalyptic rhetoric, the telephones in the members’ adjacent cloakroom were ringing with calls from President Ronald Reagan and Vice-President George Bush, who lobbied until the last moment in an attempt to sway undecided members with promises of roads, services and legislative trade-offs. Then as the 432 representatives watched the electronic scoreboard on the walls of the chamber, a cheer erupted from the Democratic side of the House. With the aid of 16 Republicans who had abandoned their leader, they had delivered a stunning blow to Reagan and voted down his bill for $100 million in aid to the U.S.-backed rebel armies—known as the contras—fighting the Nicaraguan government. At the White House, spokesman Larry Speakes was unusually grim as he delivered a terse statement that officials had redrafted three times. In it, the President termed the vote “a dark day for freedom” and vowed to “come back again and again until this battle is won.”
But both the gloom at the White House and the jubilation among congressional Democrats were short-lived as both sides prepared for the next round in what promises to be a pro-
tracted battle. When the proposal moves to the Republican-controlled Senate this week, it is sure to pass in some form before returning to the Democrat-dominated House for a vote on April 15. There, a range of compromise aid packages for the contras was already being fashioned during last week’s debate. And even the measure’s fiercest opponents concede that the President will eventually win a vote on a weaker version of the bill that will include some measure of military aid.
Still, the vote marked the second time in less than a month that Reagan has staked his personal popularity on an issue and failed to win congressional support. Indeed, his polarizing rhetoric and the White House’s high-pressure tactics caused bitterness among some congressmen only eight months from this year’s crucial midterm elections. And attempts by White House communications director Patrick Buchanan to characterize a vote against contra aid as siding with the Communist-backed regime of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega provoked denunciations of “redbaiting” and “McCarthy-like tactics” from members of both parties. Said freshman Representative James Chapman, a Democrat from Texas: “We’re not just offended when our patriotism is questioned. We’re incensed by it.”
For many congressmen, the vote was particularly difficult. It forced them to
choose between two equally unattractive alternatives—the repressive leftist regime in Managua with its Cuban military advisers, or the controversial contras, whose atrocities have been widely documented and who have failed to win the support of either the Nicaraguan people or the country’s democratically elected neighbors. In February the foreign ministers of eight Latin American nations visited Washington to ask Secretary of State George Shultz to halt support and training of the contras. Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo, whose opposition—along with that of other Central American leaders— played a key role in influencing Congress, said that approving the contra aid would only have been “repeating the errors of history.”
And for many congressmen, voting $100 million—$70 million of which was for direct military use—in an election year already plagued by draconian budget cuts, appeared to be excessive. Timothy Valentine (D.-N. C.), who describes himself as a “100-per-cent hawk,” said, “I don’t like giving away money to a bunch of illiterate cutthroats in Nicaragua when we can’t find money to pay for rural electrification or help the struggling textile industry in the United States.”
Over the past weeks, as Reagan repeatedly raised the prospect of communism on America’s doorstep, many congressmen were haunted by an even more powerful spectre—the Vietnam War. Indeed, in his response to Reagan’s televised speech, Tennessee Democrat Senator James Sasser struck a potent chord when he warned: “As the father of a 17-year-old son, I say Mr. President, let’s not rush blindly into
the quagmire. We’ve done that before.” The fear of war was exacerbated by reports that early this month U.S. army units began constructing their sixth new airstrip in three years 30 km inside the Honduras border.
Such moves failed to convince Congress that the administration was sincere about its interest in a diplomatic solution to the problem—at a time when the climate for negotiations appeared to be right. Early this year eight Latin American democracies revived the negotiating and peacekeeping proposals of the so-called Contadora group—supported by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in his meeting with Reagan last week—calling for a Latin American solution to the problem.
As the debate moves to the Senate this week, White House insiders indicate that there are no plans to moderate Reagan’s rhetoric. After Reagan’s televised appeal for contra aid, congressmen reported receiving more calls against the President than for his proposal, and an ABC television poll reported that after the speech 54 per cent of Americans still opposed the aid bill. Indeed, many Republicans expressed concern that, following the President’s unsuccessful attempt to increase defence spending earlier this month, he is again wasting his fabled communications skills on an unpopular issue that may weaken him further in the nearly three years left in his final term. Said Democrat Les Aspin, who frequently supports the President on defence issues: “There’s going to be more lame-duck talk after this.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.