WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled House, expressing a strong desire for deficit reduction and arms control, voted Tuesday night to slash President Reagan's funding request for the "Star Wars" missile defense system to $3.1 billion and force him to abide by the unratified 1979 strategic arms limitation treaty.
By a vote of 239 to 176, the House approved a "Star Wars" proposal by Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) that would allow for a 3.5% increase over current funding for research on the space-based nuclear defense, known officially as the Strategic Defense Initiative. The President had asked Congress for a 73% increase to $5.3 billion.
It then voted, 225 to 186, for a proposal by Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.) that would strictly prohibit Reagan from deploying any weapons in excess of the limits outlined in the SALT II treaty. The President has threatened to exceed the limits later this year as the United States continues to equip B-52s with cruise missiles.
Highly Partisan Votes
Both highly partisan votes indicated that, despite recent progress in U.S.-Soviet arms talks, there is a growing skepticism among Democrats about the President's commitment to arms control. Thirty-three Republicans joined with 206 Democrats to trim the "Star Wars" funding level; 19 Republicans and 206 Democrats voted to abide by SALT II.
The House rejected three alternative funding levels for "Star Wars"--all of them proposed by Californians. The votes were 324 to 94 against a $5.2-billion plan offered by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove); 302 to 114 against a $1-billion proposal by Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley), and 218 to 196 against a $3.6-billion plan by Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach).
Reagan's supporters decried those actions as a serious blow to Reagan's nuclear strategy, and the House was expected to compound the setback by voting today to continue an existing moratorium on testing of anti-satellite weapons, known as ASAT.
Dornan, a staunch conservative, declared that it was the worst day he had ever seen in the House for the struggle against communism. "Whether we mean to or not, we have emboldened the Soviet Union," he said.
Democrats portrayed the lower funding level for "Star Wars" as a reasonable compromise among the competing demands for deficit reduction, protecting the national security and creating an incentive for the Soviet Union to agree to a new arms control treaty. Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.) described it as "a structured, moderate, sensible approach to the problem."
17% Increase Seen
Noting that the Senate last week approved a "Star Wars" funding level of $3.9 billion, Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), co-sponsor of the Bennett amendment, predicted that Congress would ultimately settle on an increase of about 17% after the two differing figures were reconciled by a House-Senate conference committee.
Last week, the Senate rejected continuation of the ASAT testing moratorium and approved a much weaker provision supporting SALT II. Those differences also would have to be ironed out by House-Senate conferees.
Budget constraints and arms control negotiations were clearly uppermost in the minds of the House members as they considered "Star Wars" funding, which has increased dramatically since 1983, when Reagan initially declared it the centerpiece of his defense strategy. More than $6 billion already has been spent on "Star Wars" research, and it is the single biggest item in a proposed $286-billion Pentagon budget now under consideration in the House.
Although the President insists that he does not view "Star Wars" as a bargaining chip in arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, Kremlin leaders have made it clear that they want the Administration to abandon the program in exchange for a reduction in intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at the United States.
Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.) charged that Reagan had misled Americans into believing that "Star Wars" would be such an impenetrable shield that a person could step outside during a nuclear attack and watch "the pinball wizards of the 'Star Wars' program" blast Soviet warheads out of the sky.
Instead, he said, it has proven to be an expensive program that fuels the arms race.
"We're talking about the biggest pork-barrel project in the history of the world," he asserted. "It will set in motion a whole new nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union."
Many Democrats argued also that the money could better be spent on research for improving conventional weapons. "The conventional threat is worse than the nuclear threat," Bennett insisted. "We have a redundancy in the field of nuclear weapons."
Similarly, Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) estimated that the government could spend as much as $2.5 trillion--more than the current national debt--on "Star Wars" and said the money would be better spent on curing social problems such as drug abuse and crime.