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Reagan and Congress Seen Breaking Defense Logjam

November 10, 1987|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Reagan and his congressional critics have temporarily resolved their differences over testing of the Administration's "Star Wars" missile defense system and U.S. violations of the unratified 1979 strategic arms limitation treaty, sources said Monday.

The agreement defuses a potentially explosive showdown between Congress and the White House over arms control issues later this year and opens the way for House and Senate conferees to complete work today on a $290-billion defense spending bill for fiscal 1988, which began Oct. 1.

One congressional source described the agreement as "the first achievement of the Carlucci regime"--a reference to Reagan's newly designated defense secretary, Frank C. Carlucci, who is expected to be more conciliatory toward Congress than Caspar W. Weinberger, the outgoing Pentagon chief, who was viewed by many as an opponent of arms control.

"Eighty percent of what Congress has passed on arms control was aimed at Weinberger and (former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard N.) Perle, and now they are gone," noted a Democratic member of Congress, who declined to be identified. "We've had a long period of confrontation between the Administration and the Congress, and there are finally elements within this Administration who are reaching out to Congress."

In addition, sources say, House and Senate conferees have agreed tentatively to give Reagan about $3.9 billion in fiscal 1988 for research on the "Star Wars" program, known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative. The President had requested $5.7 billion, but neither the House nor Senate would agree to that level.

"Star Wars" testing and adherence to the limits of the 1979 SALT II treaty were the two major issues dividing Congress and the President as they sought to agree on a Pentagon budget. Reagan had threatened to veto the 1988 defense budget if it included two controversial provisions dealing with these issues that were passed by the House and Senate.

White House officials and members of Congress apparently were anxious to resolve their differences on these issues after they learned that Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev would meet in Washington early next month with arms control a major topic. Nevertheless, it appears that their agreement only postpones a showdown on the issues until next year.

The hottest dispute between Congress and the President on arms control involved a provision of the defense bill authored by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). The provision would require the President to seek congressional approval before he could adopt a new interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which many in Congress say prohibits testing of defenses such as the "Star Wars" system.

The President has indicated that he wants to begin testing components of a "Star Wars" system beginning in fiscal 1989. But to do so would require the Administration to formally adopt as U.S. policy a new, broader interpretation of the ABM treaty. Most members of Congress are said to oppose the broader interpretation.

According to sources, the issue was resolved for fiscal 1988 when members of Congress and Administration officials simply agreed that they would not try to settle it until they draft the Pentagon budget for fiscal 1989.

By leaving the question of "Star Wars" testing unresolved in the defense budget for another year, sources said, the negotiators agreed that this would not tie the hands of the Administration in arms control talks with the Soviet Union. Like Congress, the Soviets also are asking Reagan to abandon plans to proceed with "Star Wars" testing.

The other controversial provision of the defense bill would have required the President to adhere to the limits that SALT II set on various categories of long-range nuclear weapons. Although the treaty was never ratified by the U.S. Senate, the Administration adhered to its limits until late last year.

Under terms of the agreement, the sources said, the Administration has agreed to withdraw the Andrew Jackson, a Poseidon missile submarine, from service during fiscal 1988 instead of overhauling it as planned.

Although this would not bring the United States back into compliance with the SALT II limits, it would guarantee that U.S. arsenals do not further exceed those limits during fiscal 1988. The Administration will continue to equip B-52 bombers with cruise missiles at a level that exceeds the SALT II treaty curbs on launchers.

The agreement also calls for a continued ban on testing of anti-satellite weapons.

The accord was reached in a series of closed meetings that included Nunn; Virginia Sen. John Warner, ranking Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.); White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr., and Carlucci.

The overall spending level in the fiscal 1988 defense authorization bill still has yet to be resolved and is dependent upon the budget negotiations now under way between Congress and the White House. The conferees have drafted a bill that would comply with two optional figures--$296 billion and $289 billion. The President had requested a defense budget of $312 billion.

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