WASHINGTON — In a major victory for the arms control lobby, the Senate for the first time expressed support Thursday for a binding proposal that would force President Reagan to abide by key elements of the unratified 1979 strategic arms limitation treaty.
By a 55-44 vote, the Democratic-controlled chamber refused to set aside the proposal, authored by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), that has been one of the perennial issues in the annual legislative battle over arms control.
"I really believe that the size of the vote indicates that people want to put a cap on this arms race," Bumpers said.
'Star Wars' Curbs
It was the second major setback for Reagan on arms control issues since the Senate began debating a mammoth $303-billion defense spending bill for fiscal 1988. Two weeks ago, the Senate adopted an amendment that would require Reagan to abide by the traditional, narrower interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That interpretation would limit testing of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the space-based missile defense program also known as "Star Wars."
Reagan's supporters reacted angrily to Thursday's vote, branding it an ill-timed response to the Soviet Union's test firing this week of a long-range missile with dummy warheads to a targeted location just a few hundred miles from Hawaii. One leading opponent, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), characterized the vote as nothing more than a "thank-you note" to the Soviets for violating the treaty themselves.
An up-or-down vote on the Bumpers amendment is expected today, shortly before the Senate is scheduled to pass the giant defense spending bill for fiscal 1988.
On Thursday night, Democrats agreed to withdraw their controversial Persian Gulf amendment to the defense bill. The decision was made after the Senate voted 54 to 45 in favor of a motion to end debate on the controversial measure--a vote that fell short of the necessary three-fifths to halt a GOP filibuster against the amendment.
Nevertheless, Democrats vowed to revive the Persian Gulf issue again next week by offering a separate piece of legislation. Under the current proposal, the President would have to halt escorts of reflagged Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf within 90 days unless he got the explicit approval of Congress to continue the policy.
The SALT II pact, negotiated by President Jimmy Carter, was never brought up for a ratification vote in the Senate because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Although Reagan condemned it as "fatally flawed," he continued to abide by the treaty until last year.
In recent years, the House has voted consistently in favor of legislation that would bind the President to abide by the limits set by the treaty for the number of missile launchers that can be deployed by each superpower. But the Senate has never previously endorsed anything but a nonbinding resolution calling on Reagan to observe the limits.
Thursday's vote sharply increased the chances that Reagan, for the first time, will receive a defense spending bill from Congress this year requiring him to abide by SALT II limits. The President already has vowed to veto the bill because of the ABM treaty amendment.
Even if the Bumpers amendment fails, it is now more likely to be a part of the final House-Senate compromise package. A defense bill for fiscal year '88 passed by the House last May contains restrictions similar to those authored by Bumpers.
During debate on Bumpers' amendment, Reagan's conservative supporters in the Senate did their best to persuade others senators that the President should not be forced to abide by a treaty that the Soviets are violating. Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) and others argued that the firing of a Soviet test missile near Hawaii violated no fewer than three provisions of the 1979 pact.
Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) strongly objected when Warner tried to portray the vote as a Democratic "thank-you note" to the Soviets for their missile test.
"What I was doing in that vote was not putting my signature on any thank-you note back to the Soviet Union," he said. "I take umbrage at that."
Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) also argued that the Bumpers amendment would impede progress toward new U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements, including an intermediate-range missile pact, on which both sides have expressed tentative agreement.
"If we show a lack of resolve now, we lessen the chances for a good outcome in the long run," he insisted.
While the debate was highly partisan, the vote was not entirely along party lines. Seven Democrats voted with the Republicans to set the measure aside; eight Republicans voted with the Democrats in support of the Bumpers proposal. The only member not voting was Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) voted for the measure.
Supporters of the Bumpers amendment acknowledged that, while the Soviets have violated some provisions of the unratified treaty, there is no evidence that the Kremlin has violated the SALT II limits on the number of launchers of intercontinental ballistic missiles that each side may deploy. Also, Bumpers argued that Reagan would be exempt from his amendment if the Administration could prove that the Soviets have violated those limits.
He also insisted that SALT II protects the United States more than the Soviet Union. If both superpowers decide to ignore the treaty's limits, he said, the Soviets are in a much better position to capitalize on this change in policy because their missile production lines are still in operation.
The Reagan Administration exceeded the treaty's limits late last year when the President chose to continue equipping B-52 bombers with cruise missiles without dismantling any other part of the nation's nuclear arsenal.