The Reagan Administration, rebuffed in its previous attempts to begin producing nerve gas, is opening what one defense budget expert predicted would be "a full-court press" to persuade Congress to let it rebuild the nation's stockpile of the highly toxic weapons.
The Pentagon is seeking a $1.4-billion chemical warfare budget next year, up from the approximately $1 billion it is receiving this year under provisions that exclude actual production of nerve gas.
No new chemical weapons have been authorized since 1969, and the military wants to replace aging, dangerous stocks with new "binary" weapons that can be kept harmless until combined automatically in a shell or bomb just before reaching a target.
Despite defeat in Congress last May, the Administration is seeking $207 million for research on modern chemical weapons, purchase of production equipment, construction of a production site and purchase of chemicals, shells and bombs. Last year, it unsuccessfully sought $136 million for similar efforts.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have begun trying to gain congressional support for their controversial proposal, and a Pentagon official said that he expects Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to pursue the funding.
But supporters of the plan concede that, despite the departure from Congress of two leading opponents of chemical weapons--former Rep. Ed Bethune (R-Ark.) and former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.)--they face a difficult fight.
Reagan Plea Rejected
Last May, the House rejected a last-minute plea by President Reagan and refused for the third straight year to allow the Pentagon to buy the chemicals and other material needed to resume nerve gas production. The vote was 247 to 179, with 50 Republicans joining the Democratic majority in opposing the plan.
One week later, the Republican-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee, recognizing the strong opposition in the House, deleted the proposed funding before sending the fiscal 1985 Pentagon budget to the full Senate.
Weinberger and Vessey sought support for the new funding each time they appeared last week before House and Senate committees getting their first looks at the Defense Department budget for fiscal 1986.
"We don't have a good capability to retaliate with chemical weapons today, and the Soviets know it," Vessey told the Senate Budget Committee last Thursday, firing one of the first shots in what Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project, a nonpartisan and nonprofit research organization, said is "going to be a full-court press" on behalf of nerve gas production this year.
A Pentagon official said that "well over 15 countries" have the capacity to use nerve gas weapons. The precise number is classified, he said.
"If I were out there on the battlefield, I'd be facing what I consider an unacceptable risk," another Pentagon official said, referring to the possible use of nerve gas by the Soviet Union.
In addition to the $207 million it wants for nerve gas production and related efforts, the Administration is seeking about $1 billion for development and production of clothing and vehicles for use by soldiers facing chemical weapons--a category of funding that was approved last year.
The rest of the money would be spent on destroying obsolete stocks of nerve gas, construction of storage facilities for some of the current stocks and additional research.
Pentagon officials acknowledge that, whatever arguments they make, they are dealing with what one described as "a socially abhorrent thing" and that the debate is certain to become emotional.
In echoing that view, a congressional staff member who has watched the fight over chemical weapons for several years remarked that "a lot of people who are very pro-military will nonetheless vote 'no' to show some balance. It carries a lot of emotional weight."
In the House, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has been in a small minority on the panel that opposes nerve gas production. There is no sign that his opposition is weakening, an aide said.
Rep. William L. Dickinson of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee, has led the fight in the past to obtain funding for nerve gas and will be interested in "making the same effort" this year, an aide said. "But a lot of times he doesn't like to beat his head against a brick wall," this aide said.
Close Vote Predicted
Carl T. Bayer, a committee staff member, said that the vote--likely to occur in the spring--"should be very close" and noted that it will be politically more palatable to vote for nerve gas production this year because the next election is nearly two years away.
"It appears the Administration is really going to press for it. Every witness we've heard so far is jumping up and down" in favor of nerve gas production, he said. "Being a non-election year, they might have some chance."
Bethune, who left the House in an unsuccessful campaign for the Senate, was "very articulate in fighting this thing," Bayer said. The former Arkansas congressman represented a district near the Pine Bluff Arsenal, where the production would take place.
A Pentagon lobbyist, in arguing for production of binary nerve gas, cited the danger of the arsenal's stockpile and remarked: "If a tornado ran through Pine Bluff and the winds were right, you could wipe out Little Rock."
In an apparent effort to remove any partisanship from an issue that in the past has not been cast strictly along party lines, Reagan is appointing a bipartisan nine-member Chemical Warfare Review Commission to determine the adequacy of the U.S. chemical weapons arsenal and to recommend a future course.
Lawrence S. Eagleburger, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, is said to be considered a leading candidate to be chairman, but no panel members have been appointed.
Such a body, by recommending production, could help take the political sting out of voting for the funding. But delays in naming the commission members could delay a report until after the key votes are taken in Congress this year.