Defense Bill Repassed Without Extra ‘Star Wars’ Funds

Times Staff Writer

The Democratic-controlled Congress, refusing to be drawn into an election-year squabble over the “Star Wars” program between presidential candidates George Bush and Michael S. Dukakis, Wednesday passed and sent to the White House a compromise version of the $299.6-billion defense spending bill that President Reagan had vetoed two months ago.

The legislation, approved by a vote of 369 to 48 in the House and 91 to 4 in the Senate, makes several important concessions to the President, but it does not give him one key item that he demanded when he vetoed the previous bill: additional funds for “Star Wars.”

Like the vetoed bill, the new measure authorizes $4.1 billion for “Star Wars” research, or more than $800 million less than the President originally requested. Nevertheless, it does grant the President more flexibility in deciding how the “Star Wars” money will be allocated among several competing research projects.

As a result of the compromise, Reagan is expected to sign the measure before the 1989 fiscal year officially begins on Saturday.


Bush Sought Veto

When the President vetoed the original bill on Aug. 3, he argued that it put unnecessary restrictions on his ability to make decisions regarding the nation’s strategic nuclear arsenal and arms control talks with the Soviet Union. But White House officials said privately that the bill was vetoed at the request of Bush, who hoped the action would precipitate a full-scale debate in Congress over his differences with Dukakis on “Star Wars.”

Bush, who has said that he shares Reagan’s enthusiasm for a space-based missile defense system, is on record as supporting the current funding level for “Star Wars” research; Dukakis has said that he would cut “Star Wars” funding to about $1 billion a year, reducing it to the 1983 level.

Although many Democrats as well as Republicans were eager to debate the differences between the defense programs of Bush and Dukakis in Congress, such a battle did not appeal to the Democratic leadership or to Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, who immediately set out to find a compromise. The revised bill was a product of hours of behind-the-scene talks among Carlucci and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who head the Armed Services committees in their chambers.


According to sources familiar with the talks, Nunn, Aspin and Carlucci quietly pursued a compromise because they feared that presidential politics might otherwise impede enactment of a defense bill until next year, depriving the nation’s armed services of a long-promised 4.3% pay raise and other benefits contained in the bill.

Expands Anti-Drug Role

Among the many other provisions of the legislation that were not at issue between the White House and the Congress was one that would give the military expanded responsibility in tracking drug smugglers who cross U.S. borders. It would not allow military personnel to arrest suspected drug smugglers, however.

Predictably, both Republicans and Democrats claimed victory as a result of the compromise. Republicans insisted that the Democrats had made a substantial concession by giving Reagan flexibility to allocate “Star Wars” funding; Democrats said that the changes the President had insisted on were--as Aspin put it--"so damned minor.”


“The changes that should have been made have been made,” said Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who, along with Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle, the Republican vice presidential nominee, had been a leading supporter of the President’s decision to veto the original bill.

The issue of the President’s prerogatives arose because Congress in recent years has tried to shift more “Star Wars” money into pure research programs and away from one controversial project favored by conservatives--the development of space-based anti-missile defenses to be put in place by the late 1990s.

But the political struggle between supporters of those two alternatives has virtually evaporated in recent months since the Pentagon--faced with a limited budget for “Star Wars,” political opposition in Congress and skepticism in the scientific community--acknowledged that it was scaling back on the goals of the program to make it a more modest, ground-based system.