WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans blocked action on the defense authorization bill Wednesday, protesting that Democratic-sponsored restrictions on testing of "Star Wars" anti-missile defenses would undercut U.S. negotiators at the arms control talks in Geneva.
Organized by Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), a large band of Republicans launched a filibuster that Democrats conceded may be difficult to shut down.
Bolstering the partisan confrontation, 34 Republicans signed a letter of support to President Reagan demonstrating that the Senate could sustain a veto of the defense measure if the "Star Wars" restrictions, similar to those in the House bill, remain intact. A veto can be sustained only if it is supported by more than one-third of the members of either body--34 in the Senate.
Cites One-Sided Constraint
The letter complained that the restrictions in the Senate measure, co-authored by Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), "would represent a unilateral constraint on our defense programs and offer the Soviets a unilateral concession" in bargaining over reduction of weapons.
Democrats resisted demands to delete the controversial provision, which would require that the Administration obtain congressional approval before moving to a broader interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union.
Reagan is considering scrapping the long-held narrow interpretation, which bars space tests of laser and particle-beam weapons envisioned in his "Star Wars" program, formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. Under this narrow treaty definition, only laboratory research on such weapons is permitted.
Hoping for Arms Deal
Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana suggested that his fellow Republicans were filibustering in a bid to buy time for U.S. negotiators to cut a deal in Geneva. He noted that Democrats acceded to a presidential request last year to drop arms program restrictions from legislation before Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland.
"Basically, we're telling them (Democrats) that we can live without a defense bill," Quayle said.
But Nunn warned that the blocking tactics might necessitate a catchall appropriations bill that would provide only "meager" funding for "Star Wars" and other defense programs in fiscal 1988, which begins Oct. 1.
Declaring that "this is not government by king," the Georgia Democrat indicated that the restrictions would be dropped only if Reagan promises informally to obtain congressional approval before restructuring the "Star Wars" program.
Threat of Veto
Reagan, referring to the tight "Star Wars" limits in the House and Senate bills, said after meeting with GOP congressional leaders Tuesday: "I simply can't go along with those who would hand the Soviets, free of charge, what they can't win at the bargaining table. This is no way to run America's foreign policy, and I would be compelled to veto any legislation that endangers our arms reduction efforts or undermines our national defense."
Leading off the Senate filibuster, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, complained that the Nunn-Levin provision would "limit the flexibility of negotiators" and "impose on them a new starting point."
In effect, he said, Congress "would be pulling a chair up to the negotiating table," a situation that he called unprecedented and contrary to the constitutional separation of legislative and executive powers.
Moreover, he said, Congress would be preventing the President from moving to a "more expeditious and cost-effective research and testing program." That referred to efforts by "Star Wars" advocates in the Administration and Congress to accelerate the program, beginning with deployment of so-called kinetic-energy "collision" vehicles while research continues on directed-energy, or laser, weapons.
Sees a 'Blank Check'
Responding, Nunn asked: "Can we really begin a program that departs from the historical interpretation of the ABM Treaty without the approval of Congress? It would be unprecedented for Congress to give the President a blank check to undergo a restructuring of the program."
He added: "We are not saying you can't go to Geneva and (assert) a broad interpretation" of the ABM Treaty. "We are simply saying: 'Mr. President, here's $4.5 billion for SDI' "laboratory research. " 'If you want to spend it in a way not presented to Congress, we've got to approve it first.' "
Meanwhile, the House, working through its version of the defense bill, refused to halt studies of a plan to base 50 MX missiles on railroad cars shuttling among a series of "garrisons" near existing commercial rail lines.
An amendment to eliminate $250 million for the project was defeated, 239 to 184.