WASHINGTON — President Bush promised congressional leaders Tuesday that he will abandon the U.S. demand for a ban on mobile land-based missiles at strategic arms talks with the Soviet Union if he is assured of funding for two such weapons systems.
He appeared to win significant congressional support for the approach, partly because he is willing to divert $947 million more to the Midgetman program--missiles with a single warhead and carried on truck-like vehicles--that many Democrats favor. Bush said that such support will facilitate a new U.S. position at the arms talks in Geneva and remove a major obstacle to a new treaty.
Influential congressmen, including Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said they were encouraged by Bush's commitment and by the additional Midgetman funds that were reprogrammed from other Pentagon spending.
Redirected Over Weekend
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney disclosed that the new funds, for the 1992-94 period, were redirected over the weekend in a move that received virtually no notice.
"That should satisfy the doubters," Cheney said at a breakfast meeting with reporters, in referring to congressmen and others who have expressed fear that the Pentagon (as well as congressional Republicans) is more committed to the competing MX mobile program--missiles carrying 10 warheads and moved on the nation's rail tracks--and would prefer to kill the Midgetman.
The Midgetman is more costly than the MX, which in a non-mobile form already has been deployed in silos, but experts believe that it would lend more stability to the nuclear balance between the two superpowers because it is not as big a target for a surprise attack.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Bush told the congressmen, "Don't pull the rug out from under us" on the two-missile program during the Geneva negotiations. The Soviets already have deployed both the SS-24, a 10-warhead rail-mobile missile, and the SS-25, a one-warhead road-mobile missile.
The United States, which does not now have either type of weapon deployed on roads or rails, previously had sought a ban on mobile missiles at the strategic arms negotiations. However, Bush has said that he would like to have both kinds of missiles in the U.S. arsenal.
The President will not seek a ban on mobile weapons at the arms talks if Congress gives "assurances" of support for the two programs, Fitzwater said. This would remove one of the handful of roadblocks to the treaty that will reduce offensive strategic weapons by about 50%.
Precisely what would constitute the congressional assurances that Bush wants was not spelled out, according to Aspin, who noted that the Defense Department budget will not come to a vote before late July in the House and is unlikely to be passed by Congress before October.
An Administration official indicated, however, that the Administration could begin to move away gradually at Geneva from its proposed ban on mobile missiles, well before the funds are voted for the two-missile program.
Nunn, when he emerged from the White House, said that he was "very encouraged" by the President's presentation. "I think it helped clarify the seeming inconsistencies between arms control and force structure," he said.
Nunn has called for a ban on multiple-warhead mobile missiles--permitting single-warhead mobile missiles like the Midgetman. There was no indication that Bush would adopt that suggestion, however.
In a related development, the Administration was sharply criticized by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) for its new focus on verification at the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.
Biden said he does not object to the several minor changes now being made in the U.S. position on the talks, but he suggested that the modifications might be diversionary or delaying tactics to hide the Administration's inability to make decisions on the major roadblocks still facing negotiators. Another possibility, he said, is that the changes are the result of "arbitrary 'Bushification' of START," intended to put the Bush stamp on the treaty.
Today, the Administration will formally propose to the Soviets in Geneva acceleration in at least five areas, according to officials:
--On-site inspection of Soviet SS-24 missile production facilities, comparable to the monitoring of a medium-range missile plant under the existing U.S.-Soviet treaty.
--On-site inspection to count the actual number of warheads on missiles. Some missiles will be counted as carrying fewer warheads than their maximum capability, such as eight rather than 12 for the Trident D-5 missile, and verification to guard against cheating will be required.
--A ban on encoding of test flight data that is radioed from the missile. The Soviets already have agreed in principle to such a ban.
--A ban on testing missiles to fly in a flat trajectory rather than a high, arching path. A "depressed" flight path would give less warning time of an incoming missile. Neither nation is currently testing such a trajectory.
--A comprehensive exchange of information on how many strategic missiles each side has and where they are located. Both sides have agreed to such an exchange in the treaty itself.
The Administration has said that it wants to accelerate consideration of these measures to ensure that Congress will not reject a strategic arms treaty on verification grounds. "I wouldn't worry too much about the verification bogey-man up here," Biden told Secretary of State James A. Baker III during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.