WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday night for a compromise between President Reagan and Democrats that would place a firm limit of 50 on the number of MX missiles the Administration can deploy, unless it abandons current plans to place them in fixed silos.
Democrats hailed the compromise--accepted on a bipartisan vote of 78 to 20--as a setback for the President's missile defense program, which calls for deployment of 100 MX missiles. "This is a major concession on the part of the Administration," declared Senate Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.).
The plan won the support of 43 Democrats, including Sen. Alan Cranston of California, but only 35 Republicans. Conservatives, including Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), joined forces with liberals to vote against it. One Republican who opposed it, Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, characterized it as "a nonpartisan sellout of the American people."
Opponents Tell Strategy
Opponents of the missile portrayed it as a first step toward phasing out the MX program completely. Fred Wertheimer, president of the citizens lobby Common Cause, said that MX opponents now will turn their attention to winning an even more stringent limit on deployment in the House.
At the White House, however, the President issued a statement portraying the compromise as an expression of bipartisan support for the MX. "It's 50 on the way to 100, and having that confirmed by a bipartisan vote is worthwhile," said Reagan's national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane. "You must look at the glass that's half full."
Reagan sought a compromise with the Democrats when it became obvious that the Senate was on the verge of adopting a more stringent proposal by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) that would have limited the Administration to deploying 40 missiles in fixed silos. Elements of the approved plan include:
--A limit of 50 during fiscal 1986 on the number of missiles that can be deployed in fixed silos and an expression of sentiment by the Senate that no more missiles can be deployed as long as the Administration adheres to its plan for deployment in existing silos, which critics believe makes the MX vulnerable to Soviet attack.
--A limit of 12 on the number of missiles that can be manufactured during 1986, instead of the 48 the President originally requested. In addition, the compromise states that Reagan can produce between 12 and 21 missiles during fiscal 1987, but only to be used for testing and as spares.
--A strict limit on deployment, instead of a "pause" as sought by the President at the outset of the negotiations, combined with a clear statement that Reagan cannot deploy any more without returning to Congress to obtain approval of a more deceptive basing plan. That might include a mobile system such as the one adopted by former President Jimmy Carter and rejected by Reagan during the 1980 presidential campaign.
Congress previously has approved funding for the production of 42 MX missiles. Although there is no current congressionally mandated ceiling on deployment, none of the controversial 10-warhead missiles is yet ready to be deployed.
223 Missiles in First Plan
The President's original plan called for the production of 223 missiles by the early 1990s--100 to be deployed and 123 for spares and testing. Under the compromise, according to Nunn, Reagan will be allowed to produce no more than 60 to 80 additional missiles for spares and testing over that period.
Although the President previously ruled out any other basing plan, Nunn said he hoped the Senate-approved compromise would encourage the Administration to reconsider. He predicted it also would force the Administration to switch emphasis from the MX to a smaller, more mobile missile such as the Midgetman, which is now under development.
Nunn listed at least two other circumstances under which Congress might consider appropriating money for more missiles --a breakdown of arms talks in Geneva or a dramatic alteration in the Soviet Union's mix of strategic weapons.
"I'm hopeful that this compromise will put the question of MX missiles based in vulnerable fixed silos behind us," Nunn said.
'Race Track' System
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) noted during floor debate on the issue that the Administration rejected the so-called "race track" mobile basing system of the Carter Administration because it was opposed by Reagan's key supporters in Utah and Nevada, where the missiles would have been located.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, en route to Washington from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels, indicated that the Administration is willing to consider different basing ideas. Likewise, White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes said the Administration has always been committed to continuing research "to go for better basing modes sometime in the future."