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House Approves Strict Limit of 40 MX Missiles

Times Staff Writer

The House voted Tuesday to permanently limit to 40 the number of MX missiles that President Reagan is permitted to deploy--a much stricter measure than the Senate approved last month with Reagan’s approval.

By a voice vote, the Democratic-controlled chamber adopted the measure proposed by Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.) as an amendment to a bill that would freeze defense spending in fiscal 1986 at this year’s level of $292.6 billion.

The Administration strongly opposed the Mavroules proposal, instead preferring the Senate-passed plan that would limit MX deployment to 50 missiles. The House voted 234 to 182 against a proposal by Rep. William L. Dickinson (R-Ala.) that was similar to the Senate version.

‘Up to Their Throats’

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“People have had it up to their throats with the MX missile,” Mavroules said. “We want to get it behind us.”

Despite this growing anti-MX mood, the House rejected by a vote of 230 to 185 a proposal by Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) that would have abolished the MX program.

As the House debated, Reagan said at a nationally televised news conference that the multiple-warhead MX has a capacity to destroy hardened targets “that is virtually unequaled anywhere.”

Midgetman Funding

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When asked whether he would accept 40 missiles if Congress provided an additional $200 million for the single-warhead Midgetman missile and accelerated its development, Reagan replied: “We’d have to look at that very seriously to see whether there was an advantage” and whether the Midgetman program could be speeded up.

“The debates that are going on about the MX, I think, are a lot of wasted rhetoric, and we ought to get on with it,” he said. “It is most vital to us that we modernize our land-based missiles, and that is the missile that is on hand and available now.”

Differences between the House and Senate measures now must be resolved by a joint conference committee of Congress. The House-passed measure was more restrictive than the Administration-endorsed Senate version in these respects:

--It prohibits the President from deploying more than 40 missiles in existing Minuteman silos--10 fewer than the Senate voted to allow. Defense experts estimate that the 40th missile will be deployed in May, 1988.

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--The House-passed limit would be permanent, not just a “sense of the Congress” resolution, as passed by the Senate. Mavroules said this will make it more difficult for Reagan to request permission to deploy additional missiles in the future.

--It provides no new funding for missile production in fiscal 1986, unlike the Senate version, which allows 12 more missiles to be produced next year. Instead, the House measure would stretch out production of 42 previously approved missiles to keep the assembly line open for a longer period of time.

--It cuts the overall MX expenditure during fiscal 1986 from the Senate bill’s $1.7 billion to $920 million, which would be used solely for deploying missiles coming off the assembly line during that period.

100 Under Original Plan

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Reagan’s original plan was to deploy 100 missiles and produce an additional 123 of them to be used for testing and spares. He agreed to limit deployment to 50 during Senate deliberations on the issue last month. So far, however, Congress has only approved production of 42 missiles--none of which has yet been deployed.

Although the House measure does not rule out production of additional missiles to be used for testing and spares, it does seek to circumvent future efforts by the Administration to deploy 100. The Senate version suggests that Reagan could win approval for additional missiles if he were to devise a different basing mode.

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said Sunday that despite these recent congressional votes, the Administration has not abandoned the idea of deploying 100 MX missiles. “We will need to have deployed 100 missiles--there’s no question about that,” he said.

Mavroules argued that a permanent limit is important to guard against such an effort. “Without a permanent cap,” he said, “the Administration will be back next year asking for more missiles.”

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Full ‘Squadron’ Cited

Democrats argued in favor of 40 missiles, instead of 50, on grounds that a 1982 Air Force report said that 40 of the weapons would be sufficient. Republicans countered that 50 missiles were more reasonable because they constitute a full “squadron” in Air Force terms.

Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) said it is unlikely that the conference committee will strike a compromise by simply splitting the difference at 45. He noted that the missiles are being deployed in “sets” of 10, and thus the final compromise is likely to be either 40 or 50.

When asked whether the Democrats would be willing to accept 50 missiles in exchange for a permanent limit, McCurdy replied: “A permanent cap--whether it’s 40 or 50--is most important.’

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Support Has Dwindled

Tuesday’s votes showed how quickly support for MX has dwindled in Congress. Just three months ago, the House voted in favor of funding for production of 21 missiles in fiscal 1985--half of the 42 that have already been approved.

McCurdy said the President’s willingness to compromise with the Senate opened the way for this vote. “The fact that the President conceded so quickly on 50 certainly helped our margin,” he said.

The House also voted 301 to 115 in favor of trimming the overall defense spending figure by $10 billion, allowing no increase during this year. The Senate-passed defense bill allows a 3% increase to compensate for inflation.

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