WASHINGTON — The Republican-controlled Senate, ignoring a transatlantic lobbying campaign by President Reagan, signaled its intention today of paring the Administration's defense buildup by $17.7 billion over the next three years.
On a vote of 51 to 48, the Senate refused to table, and thus kill, the proposed cutback. A vote on its adoption was expected later in the day.
The followup vote would not only cut into Reagan's Pentagon buildup, but would also mark the second time in as many days that a key element of a GOP deficit reduction plan has been defeated on the Senate floor. On Wednesday, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to strip from the package a $22.7-billion curtailment in Social Security cost-of-living increases.
'Prescription for Weakening'
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger lobbied senators personally before the defense vote, telling reporters that "zero (increase after inflation) is not a defense program, it's a prescription for weakening the United States."
Reagan did his work by telephone from West Germany, where he was attending a seven-nation economic summit meeting. "He's as close as the telephone and he'll let his fingers do the walking this afternoon," presidential spokesman Larry Speakes said in Europe.
The Pentagon buildup has "created a new set of welfare queens--defense contractors," said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio,) as he argued for the plan to hold defense spending authority for 1986 constant with inflation.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and other advocates of the provision said it would have no impact on national security but is aimed at rooting out waste and inefficiency at the Pentagon.
'Sort of a Fetish'
But Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) charged that it has "become sort of a fetish with my colleagues in Congress that the only place we can reduce deficits is in the defense budget."
The defense debate was not over whether to allow an increase, but how large it should be.
The budget agreed on by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Reagan would allow spending authority to rise 3% after inflation in each of the next three years. It would give the Pentagon $24 billion more in 1986 than estimated 1985 spending of $252 billion.
Grassley and Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) proposed a $21-billion increase for 1986 by holding the spending authority increase constant with inflation. For 1987 and 1988, it called for after-inflation increases of 3%, but the cumulative effect would be to reduce the buildup by $17.7 billion from the Reagan-backed level.