WASHINGTON — President Reagan, facing a new debate on Capitol Hill over modernizing the aging U.S. chemical weapons arsenal, informed Congress today that production of the weapons will go forward.
The weapons, which are estimated to cost $200 million by the end of fiscal 1987, would be the first manufactured in the United States since 1969. At the earliest, the weapons could begin coming off the production line about two years from now, unless Congress reverses itself and again blocks the controversial program.
Reagan disclosed the move in a notification to lawmakers, in which he certified that the Administration has met several conditions set by Congress. Lawmakers approved the program last year after a long fight. That decision reversed four years of congressional defeats for the renewed production of the weapons.
Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), a critic of chemical weapons, said he believes "the President has snubbed the Congress by not following a very explicit section of the law."
That provision, Pryor said, requires that the NATO Council, the highest unit within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, approve the U.S. decision to build gas weapons. Instead, Pryor said, the Administration is accepting a decision by the NATO defense ministers' group which merely "takes note" of the U.S. production decision.
'Lead the Fight'
"I'm going to try to lead the fight again," he said. "I've got to see where the votes are. I think we might pick up a couple if senators agree with me that the President has not met the requirements of the law."
Calling the weapons vital to the nation's defense, Reagan said his Administration is "earnestly seeking, as our top priority in the chemical weapons area, a comprehensive and verifiable ban on all chemical weapons."
"Until we achieve that goal, we must maintain a safe and viable chemical weapon stockpile to deter use of chemicals by our potential adversaries," Reagan said in the notification statement.
The defense money bill for the current budget year, fiscal 1986, barred the Administration from beginning manufacture of the new, relatively safer chemical weapons.