WASHINGTON--President Reagan, seeking public pressure on Congress to approve $100 million aid for "virtually defenseless" Nicaraguan rebels, declared yesterday evening that the funds are needed to "deny the Soviet Union a beachhead in North America."
Beseeching Congress "to vote yes," Reagan emphasized his belief that "it is not Nicaragua alone that threatens us." In a televised address from the Oval Office, he asked viewers, "Tell them to help the freedom fighters. Help us prevent a Communist takeover of Central America."
In prepared remarks, four days before the House votes on his aid proposal, Reagan urged his countrymen not to ignore "the malignancy in Managua until it spreads and becomes a mortal threat to the entire New World."
Sen. James Sasser (D-Tenn.), leading the Democratic response to Reagan, agreed with much of the President's view of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, but said it was time for negotiation, not military build-up. Sasser has proposed compromise legislation that would give the Sandinistas time to talk.
Making his case for $70 million in military aid and $30 million in non-lethal funds for the so-called Contra forces, Reagan said, "We are asking only to be permitted to switch a small part of our present defense budget to the defense of our own southern frontier."
A senior administration official, briefing reporters at the White House on the President's speech but insisting he not be identifed, said Reagan was about 10 to 12 votes short of victory in the House and would lobby members in search of support.
The official said the administration remains unwilling to compromise by lowering the amount of money Reagan requested or placing new restrictions on how the money is spent. But he acknowledged "the possibility of the President agreeing unilaterally to allow some time between the enactment of the legislation and the actual delivery of military assistance" to encourage peace talks with the Sandinistas.
In the Democratic Party reply prepared for broadcast following Reagan's address, Sasser said the Democrats agree with Reagan that "the Sandinista government has betrayed the promise of its revolution, has supressed the freedom of its own people, and has supported subversion in El Salvador," but believe "that the President is seizing military options before he has exhausted the hope of a peaceful solution."
Reagan portrayed a dire situation in Central America should the Contra forces lose American assistance.
"Using Nicaragua as a base, the Soviets and Cubans can become the dominant power in the crucial corridor between North and South America. Established there, they will be in a position to threaten the Panama Canal, interdict our vital Caribbean sea lanes, and, ultimately, move against Mexico.
Displaying a map of the region and an airfield photo from Nicaragua, the President charged members of the ruling Sandinista regime with selling illegal drugs to Americans, using their country as a terrorist command post and threatening the security of the Western alliance by seeking to spread revolution through Central America to the Panama Canal.