WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats, dismayed that the administration 'isn't doing anything' to end the strife in Central America, are actively taking part in negotiations between the governments of Nicaragua and El Salvador and the rebels trying to overthrow them.
Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., has become a point man for contacts between the government in El Salvador, leftist guerrillas and a relatively moderate faction of the armed forces.
Other congressmen have tried unsuccessfully to persuade Nicaragua's leftist government to postpone Nov. 4 elections and allow key opposition candidates to participate.
A Nicaraguan Miskitu Indian leader, who fought with U.S.-backed rebels trying to overthrow the Sandinista government, returned to Nicaragua last weekend after aides to Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., set up contacts for him with top Sandinista leaders.
Congress voted this month to cut off all U.S. funds to the rebels at least until another vote in March.
The Democratic congressmen say they have undertaken the efforts because they fear administration policies in Central America may lead to direct U.S. military intervention.
'The Reagan Administration isn't doing anything to avert a widened war in Central America,' said Rep. Michael Barnes, D-Md., who heads the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. 'They are widening the war.'
The most dramatic development in El Salvador's five-year civil war came two weeks ago in La Palma, El Salvador where President Jose Napoleon Duarte held peace talks with guerrilla leaders as Tsongas and Rep. Jim Shannon, D-Mass., looked on.
Tsongas began meeting early this year with senior Salvadoran military officers seeking to rid the institution of control by corrupt and extremist officers, sources familiar with the contacts said.
Meetings between Tsongas and Col. Roberto Santivanez, former Salvadoran military intelligence chief, led to disclosures last March to members of Congress of connections among Salvadoran officers to rightist death squads.
The paramilitary groups have been blamed for many of the 50,000 deaths in El Salvador since 1979.
Tsongas, who stressed he would oppose military aid to El Salvador unless action was taken against the death squads, solidified relationships with a relatively moderate sector of the Salvadoran armed forces led by the chief of staff, Col. Adolfo Blandon, the sources said.
Tsongas continued the contacts directly and through retired Army Col. Edward King, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff liason officer for Latin America; Leonel Gomez, a former Salvadoran land reform official; and Senate aides.
In July, Ruben Zamora, a leader of the rebel's political wing, told Tsongas the guerrillas wanted to meet with Duarte, sources said.
In talks in August about a major prisoner exchange, King probed Duarte's top aide, Julio Rey Prendes, about his reported reluctance to meet with the guerrillas.
'We wanted to see if there was any possibility the (government's) position was more flexible ... and we found Rey Prendes open to our perspective,' said a U.S. source close to the talks.
On Oct. 8, the day Duarte was scheduled to meet with Tsongas to discuss prospects for a meeting with the rebels, the Salvadoran president in a speech to the United Nations issued a dramatic invitation to the rebels to meet with him.
At the request of the rebels and government, Tsongas went to San Salvador for the peace talks, although he did not sit in on the meeting.
Sources said Tsongas has agreed to continue his mediation efforts after he leaves the Senate in January.
Reagan administration officials have downplayed the efforts.
Langhorne Motley, assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs, last week belittled reports that Tsongas and others played a significant role in the Salvadoran peace talks.
'We've decided to lease R.F.K. Stadium (in Washington) so that we will have enough room to thank all those that had a part in producing that historic event,' he said sarcastically.
In Nicaragua, Reps. William Alexander, D-Ark., Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y. and Barnes have pushed Sandinista officials to allow opposition leader Arturo Cruz to participate in Nov. 4 elections.
Alexander and Colombian President Belisario Betancur persuaded Cruz to narrow his demands for Sandinista reforms enough to get him to the brink of an accord last month with Sandinista commander Bayardo Arce, a source close to the talks said.
Arce walked out of the talks when Cruz asked for a three-day postponement of a registration deadline to discuss the proposal with members of his opposition coalition.
Kennedy staffer Gregory Craig has been more fruitful in setting up contacts between Indian leader Rivera and Sandinista officials, including a meeting this month with junta leader Daniel Ortega, which led to Rivera's return to Nicaragua last weekend.
Rivera was the first 'contra' leader to reconcile with the Sandinistas, and his talks with Ortega brought the first indication the Sandinistas might achieve peace with the disaffected Miskitu population.