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Senate GOP Forced to Shelve Plan for Missile Defense

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Republican plan to make creation of a national missile defense system an election-year issue suffered a major setback Tuesday as the Senate refused to cut off a Democratic filibuster, prompting GOP leaders to shelve the measure indefinitely.

The Senate voted, 53 to 46, to end the filibuster but fell seven votes short of the 60 needed to cut off the Democratic stalling tactic and force the missile defense legislation to a floor vote.

The move came only two weeks after similar GOP legislation became mired in the House, where Republican leaders were forced to withdraw it from the floor after congressional budget analysts estimated that it would cost far more than sponsors had claimed.

Tuesday’s action left the fate of the missile defense bill in doubt. Although House Republicans have vowed to redraft the plan to make it less costly, at least some of the momentum to do that may have evaporated.

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Senate strategists said that Republican leaders in that chamber likely will wait for the new House version before trying to take up the bill again. Senate Republicans have been less enthusiastic about the plan than their counterparts in the House.

The difficulties for the bill--known formally as the Defend America Act--in the GOP-controlled Congress are expected to take some of the steam out of GOP efforts to turn the issue into an election-year plus for Republicans.

Top GOP political leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, have rallied behind the antimissile plan as a way to paint President Clinton as weak on defense. Dole, who is in his final days in the Senate, vowed after the vote Tuesday to continue making the missile system the central national defense policy issue in his campaign.

“The fact is that the president speaks of his support for national missile defense but acts in opposition to it,” he told reporters. “The Clinton administration and its allies seek to avoid debate on defending America. This is unfortunate and irresponsible.”

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Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a major sponsor of the measure in the House, said that he expects the leadership to send a revamped version to the floor sometime this month. He said that analysts had made new estimates of costs that are substantially lower.

The Republican bill would require the Pentagon to develop and deploy a ground-based antimissile system by 2003. The administration wants instead to design a system within three years and then decide whether to deploy it.

Thursday’s vote in the Senate was almost entirely along party lines. The only exception was Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), who joined with Republicans in seeking to break the Democratic filibuster.

Congressional strategists said that the White House lobbied senators heavily to vote against choking off the filibuster. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that Clinton would have vetoed the bill.

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By some analysts’ reckoning, the administration and Republicans are not that far apart on substance. The main difference is on timing.

White House officials argue that, with the Cold War now over, the United States has several more years before so-called “rogue” states, such as North Korea, are capable of firing ballistic missiles at American cities.

But Republicans insist that with the rapid proliferation of new technology, the day when Third World countries will be able to reach U.S. shores with such missiles is closer than the administration thinks. America currently has no weapon that can shoot down ballistic missiles.

The administration has placed the cost of developing its missile-defense program at $2.8 billion between now and fiscal 2001, plus $5 billion more to put it into effect.

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Republicans have said that their program would cost only a few billion dollars more. But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculated last month that the GOP plan likely would cost between $10 billion and $14 billion, with the cost soaring to between $31 billion and $60 billion for refinements that Republicans would require.

Administration political strategists said that if the GOP measure comes up again, they hope to persuade lawmakers to back a compromise plan by Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) that essentially supports the Clinton plan.

The two sides have been sparring over the missile-defense issue for more than a year. Republicans tacked it onto the annual defense authorization bill last year but later shelved it after Clinton vetoed the omnibus measure partly because of the missile provisions.

In a related political battle, the Senate is expected to take up this coming year’s defense authorization bill sometime next week. Both the House and the Senate Armed Services Committee have approved legislation that would give the Pentagon $13 billion more than Clinton wants.

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