House Democrats, fearing that President Reagan would blame them for undermining his talks with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, on Friday backed down on their demand for a pledge from Reagan that he will continue to abide by the 1979 strategic arms limitation treaty.
On the eve of Reagan’s meeting with Gorbachev in Iceland, House and Senate leaders disclosed an elaborate agreement designed to break a lengthy stalemate with the White House over arms control issues. President Reagan promptly called House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) from Iceland to thank the Democrats for the “show of unity.”
House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said the settlement would give Reagan “a clear and free and unfettered hand” in arms talks with Gorbachev.
“Now your hands are untied, Mr. President,” Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) declared. “We expect results!”
The agreement also clears the way for passage next week of an omnibus spending bill--to which the House had attached its demands on arms control--to fund the government for the remainder of the current fiscal year.
Democrats failed to obtain the single most important item that they had demanded from the President--a pledge that he will not violate the unratified SALT II pact later this year, as expected. Reagan, who is threatening to violate the treaty by equipping a 131st B-52 bomber with cruise missiles, said that such a pledge would have amounted to a unilateral concession by the United States to the Soviet Union.
Although Reagan also turned down the Democrats’ plea for a halt in nuclear testing, he did make a concession to the arms control advocates on the testing issue. The Soviets recently renewed their unilateral test ban and challenged Reagan to adopt a similar moratorium, but the President flatly rejected it.
In a three-page letter signed in Reykjavik, the President pledged to submit to the Senate next year the threshold test ban and peaceful nuclear explosions treaties and to ask the Soviets to agree to improved verification procedures for those pacts. Upon ratification of those treaties with adequate verification, he pledged to seek a resumption of talks on a verifiable comprehensive test ban treaty with the Soviets.
The legislation would also:
--Continue the current ban on testing of anti-satellite weapons.
--Permit production of a new binary chemical weapon, the 155-millimeter artillery shell, but provide no money for the controversial Bigeye Bomb.
--Provide about $3.5 billion for Reagan’s so-called “Star Wars” space-based defense system.
--Permit the purchase of 12 spare MX missiles.
--Fund full-scale engineering development of the Midgetman missile during fiscal 1987, which began Oct. 1.
Plus for Reagan
While House members won some concessions, their failure to force Reagan to abide by the SALT II pact was a big setback for arms control advocates and a clear admission by the Democratic leadership that Reagan had gained the upper hand by scheduling the surprise meeting with Gorbachev. Politically wary Democrats decided not to force the issue while Reagan was in Iceland.
“Without a summit, we might have won on SALT II,” Dicks said. At the same time, he noted that the President “has nobody to blame but divisions within his Administration if he doesn’t achieve something out of the summit.”
Meanwhile, liberal Democrats and arms control advocates vowed that they would not abandon their legislative battle to force the President into an arms control agreement. Dicks predicted that the same arms control provisions sought by the House this year would be attached to a spending bill sought by the Administration early next year.
The battle began earlier this year when the House passed a series of tough arms control measures as part of a Pentagon spending package and the Republican-controlled Senate refused to accept them. Friday’s agreement technically settles this dispute between the two chambers and will be incorporated into a spending bill funding the Defense Department and many other agencies in fiscal 1987.
Although the spending bill will not include a House-passed provision forcing Reagan to continue to observe the terms of the SALT II agreement, it does contain a non-binding “sense of the Congress” resolution similar to one approved by the Senate calling on the President to abide by the SALT II pact.
Earlier this week, Wright had declared that continued observance of SALT II was the principle objective of House Democrats. He even offered to settle for just “a nod” from Reagan indicating that the Administration would not violate the treaty, but the President was unwilling to budge on the SALT II compliance issue.
Nevertheless, Reagan’s pledge to submit two nuclear testing treaties to the Senate for ratification was hailed as a breakthrough by Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chief architect of the agreement. “It wasn’t a victory for either side; it was a victory for the American people,” he said.
The House had passed a provision that would have required the President to impose a one-year moratorium on nuclear tests over one kiloton, provided the Soviets agree to on-site verification; the Senate had approved a non-binding measure calling on Reagan to submit the treaties for ratification and to propose an immediate resumption of talks with the Soviets on a comprehensive test ban treaty.
What the President accepted was something less than the Senate version. The Administration has long opposed a test ban on grounds that the United States must know whether its weapons actually work.