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House Approves Funds for Chemical Weapons : $124.5-Million Measure Is Victory for Reagan, Would Allow Binary Production in Two Years

Times Staff Writer

In a surprise victory for President Reagan, the Democratic-controlled House voted Wednesday for a bipartisan compromise that would open the way for production of binary chemical weapons in two years--ending a moratorium that had existed since 1969.

By a vote of 229 to 196, the House approved a proposal by Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) that would release $124.5 million for production of chemical weapons such as nerve gas after Sept. 30, 1987, under certain circumstances. For example, the approval of North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, which now oppose production, would be required.

‘Frustration and Anger’

A leading opponent of the measure, Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), contended that it was approved in response to recent international events, including the current U.S. hostage crisis in Beirut. “People deep down wanted to lash out with frustration and anger,” he said.

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In addition, Porter said the President personally persuaded some House members to help reverse three previous votes against the production of binary chemical weapons. Reagan persuaded all but two of the House’s 31 Republican freshmen members to vote for it, he said. Similar measures failed to pass by 14 votes in 1983 and 68 votes last year.

“I’ve got President Reagan’s tire tracks down my back,” Porter said. “The President did a particularly masterful job of lobbying with the freshmen.”

Safeguards Considered

In addition to the GOP freshmen, a number of previous Democratic opponents of the weapons, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), said they voted in favor of production on the grounds that the measure contained sufficient safeguards.

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NATO Requirement

Although the House legislation stipulates that the United States cannot begin production of binary weapons without NATO approval, Porter predicted that that criterion would be stripped from the bill by a House-Senate conference committee. The Senate recently authorized $163 million for fiscal 1986 binary weapons production with no such qualifications.

But Porter also predicted that the conference committee would retain the House requirement that the two components of the binary weapons be stored in separate states and transported separately. Unlike the current stockpile of unitary chemical weapons, binary weapons are composed of two elements that must be combined to produce a deadly effect.

Supporters of the Skelton measure, which was attached to a bill authorizing $292.6 billion for defense spending in fiscal 1986, argued that the current stockpile of deteriorating unitary chemical weapons should be replaced with the binary weapons because they are considered safer.

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Rep. Larry J. Hopkins (R-Ky.), whose district includes a stockpile of unitary chemical weapons, said he was voting for binary weapons production for the first time because of safety reasons. He noted that elements of the current stockpile range from 16 to 40 years old and that the fear of leakage haunts his constituents.

Environmental Threat

“It threatens our environment, our communities and our own soldiers,” he said.

Skelton argued for his proposal not only on safety grounds but also as an element of deterrence in the arms race with the Soviet Union. He said the two-year delay would provide an incentive for Moscow to negotiate limits on the development of chemical weapons.

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However, opponents of Skelton’s proposal insisted that the safety issue had been overblown. Porter said the incidence of leakage is “six one-thousandths of 1%.”

Bigeye Bomb Cited

Critics of binary weapons also noted that in field tests the Bigeye bomb, one of two kinds of binary weapons to be produced, has frequently failed to be effective. They questioned why, at a time when Congress is trying to cut the federal deficit, money should be spent for such a weapon.

“I don’t think we should be stockpiling money for something we don’t need and can’t use,” Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said.

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Fascell’s effort to remove the money from the House-approved amendment was defeated on a tactical maneuver by the Republicans that caused a second vote. The amendment was sustained, 223 to 196, on the second vote.


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