ROSLYN HARBOR, N.Y. — President Reagan, signaling his determination to fight the Democratic-controlled Congress over arms control and military spending, threatened Saturday to veto pending defense legislation and said the restrictions it proposes would give the Soviets "free of charge what they can't win at the bargaining table."
The President's threat marked a new step in an annual fight between the White House and Congress over military spending priorities. Congress seeks to use Pentagon budget restraints to limit the Reagan Administration's work on the "Star Wars" space-based missile defense system and to influence the Administration's arms-control posture.
Reagan has said little publicly on defense spending in recent weeks, while the Senate and House have moved to trim his Pentagon request from nearly $312 billion to about $289 billion.
At the same time, efforts have been made to curb development of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative by holding the Administration to a strict interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to limited nuclear testing.
On Saturday, in his weekly radio address to the nation, the President complained that the current defense budget of about $289 billion is 6% smaller than that of 1985. His efforts to boost it with a supplemental spending bill are being rejected by Congress.
Reagan protested that some members "have attached irresponsible amendments to defense bills that would tie my hands and undercut my ability to conduct arms reduction negotiations with the Soviets."
He described the 3% increase he seeks for fiscal 1988, which begins next Oct. 1, as "the minimum we need for a stable, consistent growth in defense" and said he had "grave concern" about arms-control amendments that he sees as threats to current negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Those talks, which have resumed in Geneva, are intended to reduce medium- and long-range weapons, as well as space defenses.
By passing pending amendments on SDI and nuclear testing, Congress would be "handing the Soviets free of charge what they can't win at the bargaining table," Reagan said. "If Congress passes legislation that endangers our arms reductions, or undermines our national defense," he added, "I will have no choice. I will veto it."
Helicopter Funds Predicted
Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.), in the Democratic broadcast response to the President's talk, said Republicans as well as Democrats are resisting Reagan's defense priorities. He predicted that the House will restore funds for Army helicopters that Reagan eliminated to pay for nuclear programs.
Reagan, who generally delivers the weekly speech live, taped his message on Friday so that he could attend the funeral Saturday in Roslyn Harbor of former CIA Director William J. Casey.
Rusty Brashear, a deputy White House press secretary, said Reagan had held off issuing the veto threat, despite objections to the pending House measure, until the Senate Armed Services Committee completed work on its version. The Senate may take up the measure this week.
He said Reagan had hoped the Senate committee would produce "a more reasonable" piece of legislation than the House measure, but "that did not turn out to be the case."
Like parallel House legislation, the Senate bill would limit testing of space-based defensive weapons of potential use in the SDI program. It would permit continued laboratory research but ban space tests of exotic weapons that figure in the "Star Wars" plan.