MX Funds Seem Assured; Foes Plotting New Strategy

Times Staff Writer

President Reagan appears headed for victory later this month in his highly visible lobbying blitz to persuade Congress to release funds for the continued production of the MX missile during the current fiscal year, according to sources on Capitol Hill.

The President's chances of winning are so good, according to those sources, that opponents of the MX have privately admitted defeat in their attempt to bar MX funds for fiscal 1985 and already are plotting their strategy to try to halt production of the controversial weapon when Congress considers fiscal 1986 funding later this spring.

The secret of Reagan's lobbying success so far has been his contention that canceling the MX now would send the wrong signal at the start of new arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, which open Tuesday in Geneva. Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) described the timing of the vote as "a piece of brilliant strategy" on the part of the President.

Even Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.), an outspoken MX opponent, acknowledged in an interview that "any reasonable person, seeing a full-court press from the White House and the crunch that Congress is under by having to vote during the first week of talks in Geneva, would conclude that the President is likely to win."

His view was echoed by a number of congressional aides who discussed the matter on the condition that they not be identified. "I haven't met anyone who doesn't say privately that it will pass," a key House Democratic staff member said. A knowledgeable Senate Republican source added: "They have given up the ghost on funding for the MX in fiscal 1985."

As a result of Reagan's lobbying success, however, the President can expect to encounter heightened opposition from MX foes in April or May, when Congress again considers funding for fiscal 1986, which begins next Oct. 1. Opponents are mounting their most vigorous campaign to halt--or at least slow--the missile program next year.

Senate Democrats have asked an informal group headed by Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, to develop a strategy aimed at limiting MX production in fiscal 1986. And Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) of the House Armed Services Committee has been discussing a variety of 1986 compromises with House Democrats.

Under consideration by Nunn's group is a proposal calling for a phase-out of MX production in fiscal 1986 that would give the President only half of the 100 missiles he has been seeking, congressional sources said. Congress so far has approved the production of 21 missiles, and 21 additional missiles are at stake in the vote later this month.

'Wiggle Room' for Foes

According to those sources, Democratic opponents of the MX are considering a plan under which they would announce later this month that they view Congress' vote to release $1.5 billion in fiscal 1985 funds as the first step toward an eventual phase-out of production. Their plan is designed to give what one congressional aide described as "wiggle room" to MX opponents who now feel bound to vote for the missile funding at the outset of U.S.-Soviet arms talks.

Instead of a phase-out, Exon said he is proposing a "stretch-out" that would delay the completion of 100 missiles until the late 1990s. Under his proposal, only 11 missiles, not 21, would be produced in fiscal 1986.

Exon said he holds out hope that Reagan would accept such a compromise to keep the MX in production beyond 1985. But the senator did not disguise his purpose in proposing the stretch-out. As he explained: "It would give us a chance to kill the program three or four years down the line if it proves as bad an investment as I think it is."

Proposed Compromise

In addition, Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) is known to have revived a compromise he proposed last year, which was rejected by the Senate. Instead of providing production funds for the MX in fiscal 1986, Chiles would simply keep the MX production line ready for further use in the event that talks with the Soviets break down.

In the House, Aspin is believed to be considering a proposed swap with Reagan in fiscal 1986--offering to support the President's controversial missile defense research program, known as "Star Wars," in exchange for halting production of the MX. In fiscal 1985, however, Aspin is expected to support continued MX funding.

MX opponents are particularly frustrated by the rules under which Congress will consider the 1985 funding--rules that many of them voted for last June. Under legislation passed last year that froze the MX funding in fiscal 1985, none of the many amendments currently under consideration can be offered during the upcoming vote.

"They made their own grave," an MX supporter declared, laughing. "The opponents put themselves in the worst position possible by requiring a straight up-or-down vote. Now they can't win an up-or-down vote. That's why they are looking to 1986."

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