Cheney Bitingly Assails House Defense Budget

Times Staff Writer

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in a biting attack on his former colleagues, Wednesday accused the House of passing an irresponsible pork-barrel defense budget and promised that President Bush would veto the measure if it emerges from Congress in its current form.

In unusually pungent language, Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Las Vegas that the Soviet military is more formidable than ever but that some members of Congress seem to think the threat has passed and have "gutted" the Administration's defense budget.

"They have seen some changes and apparently believe everything now is just fine," the former Wyoming congressman said. "It is as if they had decided to give away their overcoats on the first sunny day in January."

If a House-Senate conference committee that next month will take up the defense bill approves a version like the House bill, "you can be sure it will be veto bait," Cheney vowed. A text of his remarks was released here.

In July, the House passed a $305-billion 1990 budget for the Pentagon that sharply cut funding for the B-2 Stealth bomber, the "Star Wars" antimissile shield and two mobile nuclear missile programs. The Senate-passed version closely followed the Administration's spending plan for the expensive systems.

The House shifted the bulk of the funds cut from the nuclear weapons programs to conventional weapons systems that provide thousands of jobs in congressional districts of powerful lawmakers.

Cheney said that the Administration's spending priorities are based on meeting strategic threats posed by continuing Soviet improvements in its nuclear arsenal.

"The President took the position that nothing is as important as assuring our continued survival against the one adversary that can seriously threaten us. The Senate agreed with this thinking," Cheney told the veterans' group. "But the House decided it was more important to use the defense budget as a local job protection program."

The House diverted funds to keep the F-14 Tomcat fighter production lines open in New York and to buy the V-22 Osprey, an untested helicopter-airplane to be built in Texas and Pennsylvania. Cheney had recommended killing both programs.

Despite comforting rhetoric from the Kremlin, the defense secretary said, "the Soviet Union has been making major improvements to every leg of its strategic arsenal. In systems ranging from intercontinental missiles and bombers to submarines and strategic defense, the Soviet Union is getting stronger, while our Congress debates and our country treads water," he said.

With evident sarcasm, Cheney said: "If the House really thinks everything is fine--if it thinks the threat is reduced and we do not need to modernize--then the House ought to say so directly and return the unspent money to you. But that is not what happened. Instead, the House diverted your tax money away from critically important strategic programs and voted to spend it instead to protect jobs in selected home districts."

Cheney defended the controversial B-2 batwing bomber against critics who say that it is too costly at $530 million a copy and not needed to perform any realistic military mission.

"The B-2 decision is really a decision about the future of the manned bomber," Cheney said. He noted that the B-52 will be obsolete by the end of the century, leaving only 97 B-1 bombers to perform the manned bomber mission. He also said that those who think the plane is too expensive do not plan to return the unspent money to taxpayers, but to spend it on other projects.

On "Star Wars," or the Strategic Defense Initiative, the defense chief said the antimissile program is valuable because it complicates the job of Soviet war planners, who will be uncertain how many of their missiles will survive the space-based shield.

"You would have no way of knowing in advance which of your warheads would get through," Cheney said. "In that situation, how could you even begin to plan a preemptive first strike?"

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