WASHINGTON -- The Democratic-controlled House last night rejected 248-180 President Reagan's proposal for $14 million in direct military aid to contra insurgents seeking to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua. The same resolution was approved 53-46 by the Republican-led Senate only a few hours earlier.
The two votes set up a continuing congressional debate over whether to allow Reagan to provide non-military assistance to the rebels.
In both houses, Reagan won some additional support with a last-minute pledge to reopen direct negotiations between the United States and the Sandinista government, a key issue in Democratic opposition to Reagan's policy toward Central America.
Reagan also promised not to use the money for military aid until the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30.
The House vote was the first of three on aid to the contras, and the two remaining alternatives were expected to be much closer when votes are taken later today.
One choice sponsored by House Democrats would require that the $14 million be spent through the United Nations of the International Red Cross for Nicaraguan refugees and to enforce any peace negotiated by countries in the Central American region.
The second alternative, proposed by House Republican leader Robert Michael of Illinois and supported by the President, would give recognition to the contras by distributing nonlethal aid to them through the United States Agency for International Development.
In the Senate, 43 Republicans and 10 Democrats voted for the Contra aid proposal; 37 Democrats and nine Republicans voted against, Sen. John East (R-N.C.) did not vote because he is in the hospital.
"I will provide assistance to the democratic resistance only for food, medicine, clothing, and other assistance for their surival and well-being -- and not for arms, ammunition and weapons of war." Previously, Reagan had wanted to be able to divert the money for arms if there was no progress in Sandinista-contra talks after 60 days.
But in floor debate, Democrats, including Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, noted that the actual legislation to be voted on would permit help to the contras and includes none of the restrictions included in Reagan's non-binding letter.
"I am not going to stand here and give the President a blank checki for a Gulf of Tonkin resoultion," Glenn said. He was referring to the 1964 congressional resolution which permitted the late President Lyndon B. Johnson to send American troops to Vietnam.
As votes neared in the two houses the division over Nicaraguan policy became sharply partisan, with Republicans hinting that new communist successes in Central America would be blamed on Democrats in future elections.
"I think it will be a very tough political issue in 1986," said Sen. Richard J. Lugar (R-Ind.) chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The votes that are going to be cast are ones that are going to be remembered for a long time, and if they (voters) forget about them they are going to be reminded."
For their part, Democrats said their goal was to prevent Reagan from getting the United States into another Vietnam by going to war in Central America.
"There are tough non-military steps we could take against Nicaragua that we have not taken," said Rep. Lee Hamilton, (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "There is a better way to deal with our problems in Nicaragua than by fighting this nasty little war."