WASHINGTON — The House approved and sent to President Reagan Tuesday a House-Senate compromise that authorizes defense spending to grow with inflation this year to $302.6 billion but with a provision that House Democrats hope will keep spending $10 billion lower.
Although many House Democrats are critical of the increase, they supported the authorization bill--which had been agreed to by conferees of both houses last July--because the House adopted a rule that would allow a single congressman to block any appropriation bill that would boost this fiscal year's military spending above last year's level of $292.6 billion.
Authorization bills merely provide ceilings for spending; actual budget levels are then set by appropriation bills, and the House will take up the defense appropriations bill today. It will raise a separate set of controversial issues over defense spending priorities.
House leaders had offered the rule permitting a member to block spending over last year's level after Democrats threatened to defeat the authorization bill, complaining that their own negotiators had not bargained strongly enough with the GOP-controlled Senate to reduce the authorization levels.
Where the House in June had authorized only $292.6 billion for defense--last year's level--a House-Senate conference committee in July had agreed to allow $10 billion more, to compensate for inflation and to set spending at the level approved in the fiscal 1986 budget resolution.
"Our defense bill was a very good bill as it left the House. Now it is severely flawed," Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) said.
The conference compromise, which was quickly passed by the Senate, had forged a deep division between liberal Democrats and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), whom they had chosen less than a year ago as their chief advocate in curbing the growth of Pentagon spending.
But such squabbling was almost absent in the debate Tuesday and subsequent voice vote on the conference report.
'Lack of Fervor'
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who had been a leading critic of the bill, suggested that this "lack of fervor" merely meant that House members were saving their energy for today's debate over the actual spending bill, which will set the level for the bulk of the Pentagon's operations for fiscal 1986, which began Oct. 1.
Debate on the defense appropriation bill, which falls within the $292.6 billion insisted on by Democrats, will center on spending priorities rather than on the actual level of spending. It includes many of the House-passed provisions that had been dropped in House-Senate negotiations over the defense authorization bill.
The major conflict is expected to center on the Appropriations Committee's decision to delete the entire $163 million that the Reagan Administration had requested to begin production of new chemical weapons for the first time since 1969. Funding for nerve gas was included in the authorization bill that was passed by the House Tuesday, but many had complained that the conference committee bill had not included enough safeguards on its production.
'Star War' Cuts Unlikely
Some had predicted an effort to trim also the $2.5 billion included in the spending bill for research into President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, which aims at creating a space-based anti-missile system and is commonly called "Star Wars." However, such a move is unlikely to succeed in light of the coming U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Geneva, where the Soviets are likely to raise the controversial weapons system proposal.
The defense appropriation bill includes also a number of provisions aimed at tightening the Pentagon's procurement rules and ending the purchase of items at wildly inflated prices.
Under the deal worked out by House Democratic leaders to appease those unhappy with the conference committee bill that the House passed Tuesday, any member of the House would have the power to block any spending bill that pushed total military spending over $292.6 billion merely by raising a parliamentary objection to it.
Senate May Balk
In practice, however, it is far from certain that the Senate will be willing to abide by such a restraint imposed on it by the House.
Moreover, subsequent military spending increases this year are likely to be wrapped in a wide-ranging stopgap spending bill that will include funding for many other vital government operations--a bill that House members will be reluctant to block over any single issue.