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House Chops Reagan Request, Votes $2.5 Billion for ‘Star Wars’ Spending

Times Staff Writer

The House voted Thursday to set spending for President Reagan’s “Star Wars” space-based missile defense program at $2.5 billion next year--more than $1 billion less than Reagan had requested.

The figure, adopted by a vote of 256 to 150, was one of six spending levels considered by the House for the program. It represented a middle-of-the-road compromise between the President’s request for $3.7 billion and an expenditure of $954 million proposed by California Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley) and supported by liberal Democrats.

The successful amendment, attached to a bill authorizing $292 billion in defense spending for fiscal 1986, was similar to the original recommendation of the House Armed Services Committee. But it did not have the expressed support of Democratic or Republican leaders, or of the White House, although it passed with the support of 165 Republicans and 91 Democrats.

Limits of Treaty

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Unlike several of the defeated amendments and an earlier Senate-passed version, the House-approved measure contained no prohibition on violations of the 1972 U.S.-Soviet anti-ballistic missile treaty. Some aspects of the “Star Wars” research are believed to be straining the limits of the treaty.

Although the House spending figure was less than the nearly $3 billion approved by the Senate last month, House Republicans expressed much less skepticism than their Senate counterparts about the potential capability of the “Star Wars” program, officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative.

In the Senate, only a fraction of the GOP majority there shared Reagan’s view that the research might produce a near-perfect defense or “umbrella” against nuclear weapons. In the House, however, many Republicans echoed the view of Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) that the space-based missile defense could be “the last best hope of this globe for disarmament.”

Christopher Columbus’ Quest

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Likewise, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) likened the search for a space-based defense to Christopher Columbus’ quest for the New World, saying that Congress has “an opportunity to play the role that Ferdinand and Isabella played.”

But liberal Democrats argued instead for a go-slow approach to funding of “Star Wars” research on grounds that development of a perfect shield in space is highly unlikely--or, as California Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) put it, is “as much a fantasy as the movie from which the name came.”

Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the vote reflected a lack of knowledge on the part of many members about the initiative. “What you see here is a lot of caution because it’s a new subject,” he said. “They are trying to find a middle position.”

Courter’s Proposal Fails

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Other alternatives considered:

--$3.7 billion proposed by Rep. Jim Courter (R-N.J.) and designed to give the President his full request, without any instructions on how the funds should be allotted among various projects. It failed by a vote of 315 to 104.

--$3 billion proposed by Rep. Marjorie S. Holt (R-Md.), with the backing of the House GOP leadership, which specifically prohibited any research that would violate the 1972 ABM treaty. It failed, 242 to 165.

--$2.1 billion proposed by Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), and embraced by the Democratic leadership, that provided the full funding sought by Reagan for essential components of the program while freezing funds for those aspects that might lead to demonstration projects violating the ABM treaty. It failed, 221 to 195.

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A Freeze on Spending

--$1.4 billion proposed by Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.) that would freeze spending for the program at last year’s level and cut back on programs that might violate the ABM treaty. It failed, 263 to 155.

--$954 million proposed by Dellums that would reduce the program to a level of spending equivalent to the commitment that existed before Reagan decided to make it a centerpiece of his strategic program. It failed, 320 to 102.

During the day-long debate leading up to these votes, Democrats and Republicans disagreed over how the Soviet Union views the U.S. program to develop a space-based missile defense. At the current arms talks in Geneva, the Soviets have been asking the United States to limit “Star Wars” development in exchange for concessions on their part.

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‘Soviet Leaders Obsessed’

“I can tell you that Soviet leaders are obsessed with SDI,” declared House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), recalling a recent visit to the Kremlin. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Soviet hierarchy is convinced that SDI will work. It’s a bone in their throat.”

But Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) insisted that Moscow already has the ability to penetrate a space-based defense. “There’s no one who will ever say that it is going to be 100% effective,” she insisted.

Anything short of a perfect defense would only encourage the Soviets to build more missiles and create a more dangerous situation, the Democrats argue. As Mavroules put it, “With an SDI and no arms control limitation agreement, we will have a battlefield in the sky.”

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A Moral Equivalent

Republicans countered that the Democrats’ argument was, in the words of Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), “the moral equivalent of telling a policeman or a fireman that to put on a bulletproof vest is provocative to the criminal or the pyromaniac.”

But Democrats, noting the current “Star Wars” budget of $1.4 billion, also argued that the government cannot absorb an increase in funds during fiscal 1986 of the magnitude recommended by the Republicans. Dicks quoted Defense Department analysts as saying that the maximum increase that can be accommodated is 35%, contrasted with the nearly 300% under Reagan’s request.

“How much of an increase can you reasonably spend?” asked Schroeder. “The game here is who can shove more money in the pipeline. That’s how we all prove we’re not wimps.”

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Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.), meanwhile, criticized the Administration for distributing the “Star Wars” research funding to dozens of defense contractors.

“It constitutes the purest example we’ve every witnessed in this country of the military-industrial complex at work,” Studds said. “SDI is becoming the first truly invulnerable weapons system--that is, a weapons system which is being produced in virtually every congressional district in the country.”


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