$299.5-Billion Defense Bill Passed by House : Reagan Says Measure Will Hamper Bargaining With Soviets on New Arms Control Agreement

Times Staff Writer

The House Wednesday passed a $299.5-billion defense spending bill for fiscal 1989 that President Reagan insisted would weaken his bargaining position on a new arms control agreement with the Soviet Union.

The bill, approved by a 252-172 vote, is the last major defense authorization legislation of the Reagan era and calls for a real cut in Pentagon spending for the fourth straight year. Within the next week, the Senate is expected to approve a slightly different bill authorizing the same overall amount.

‘Star Wars’ Funding

Although the House bill cuts funding for the President’s “Star Wars” space-based missile defense system, the Senate Wednesday narrowly defeated a proposal to trim funding for the program. The Senate action assured Reagan of getting slightly more for the “Star Wars” program in fiscal 1989 than the $3.9 billion he got in the current year.


The President had requested $4.9 billion for the system, known officially as the Strategic Defense Initiative. The House bill provides $3.5 billion, the Senate bill contains $4.6 billion, and the two chambers are expected to compromise on about $4 billion.

In a letter received by Republican leaders shortly before the House bill was passed, the President said that the measure will “undermine our position in negotiations with the Soviet Union and hold back the progress of the Strategic Defense Initiative.” The vote was taken less than three weeks before Reagan goes to Moscow for his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, at which the two leaders will discuss reducing long-range strategic weapons.

Reagan objected not only to the House cut in “Star Wars” but also to provisions that would require him to ban nuclear explosive tests with yields exceeding one kiloton as long as the Soviet Union ob serves a similar ban and to abide by the unratified 1979 strategic arms limitation treaty. He argued that it was his willingness to deploy weapons that enabled him to negotiate a U.S.-Soviet treaty banning intermediate and short-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

“No President can successfully negotiate effective arms control agreements if he must negotiate simultaneously with both the Soviets and the House of Representatives,” he wrote.


Both the House and Senate bills prohibit the President from deploying any element of “Star Wars” during fiscal 1989, in adherence with the traditional interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty--another provision that Reagan has long opposed.

‘Star War’ Cuts Rejected

Meanwhile, by a vote of 50 to 48, the Senate narrowly defeated an amendment written by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) that would have trimmed funding for the Strategic Defense Initiative by $700 million and given the savings to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for a space station. The measure was designed to appeal to supporters of the space program as well as to opponents of “Star Wars.”

Just a year ago, when the Senate was deadlocked 50 to 50 on an amendment written by Johnston to trim “Star Wars” funding, Vice President George Bush cast the tie-breaking vote and saved the program from being cut. But Bush did not come to the Senate Wednesday, even though preliminary votes on the Johnston amendment indicated that it would be cliff-hanger.


The move to slash “Star Wars” spending was widely seen as an effort by Johnston, a conservative, to win liberal support for his candidacy to succeed Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) as majority leader. Although Johnston fell two votes short of winning, he nevertheless stunned many senators by persuading Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), a defense hard-liner, to support it.

Also, the Senate rejected, by a vote of 51 to 45, an amendment to freeze U.S. multiple-warhead strategic missile launchers at roughly their current levels, which slightly exceed the limits established in the 1979 treaty. Current law sets a limit on strategic nuclear weapons that is slightly higher than that treaty provides, but the House-passed bill would require Reagan to return to its limits.

Disagree on MX Funds

The House and Senate defense spending bills differ sharply on other issues as well. The House bill contains only $100 million for an Air Force-backed plan to put the 10-warhead MX missile on railroad cars; the Senate bill provides $700 million for the MX. Also, the House bill would spend $600 million for a single-warhead mobile missile known as the Midgetman, but the Senate bill would provide only $50 million.


House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.) noted that the future of the “Star Wars,” MX and Midgetman programs ultimately will be decided by the next President. He portrayed this year’s defense spending legislation as a holding action.

The funding level for the Pentagon in both the House and Senate versions of the bill is 1% lower than last year when adjusted for inflation.