WASHINGTON — Over lunch recently, members of the Pico Rivera City Council came down "hard and heavy" on their congressman, Rep. Esteban E. Torres. They pressed him to support full funding of the expensive new Air Force plane being built in their Los Angeles County community--the B-2 Stealth bomber.
Torres, a Democrat from La Puente, has voted for deep cuts in the MX mobile missile and other strategic programs, and with the Pentagon budget a riper target than ever this year, might have been expected to slash away at the B-2 as well. But at the luncheon he backed enough funding, said Pico Rivera Mayor John G. Chavez, to make the councilmen happy.
Like many of the Democrats who control Congress, Torres is learning how tricky it can be to carve a juicy "peace dividend" out of the military despite the dramatically reduced tensions with the Soviet Union.
These lawmakers would like to divert billions from a massive defense buildup to social and environmental causes. But from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, from Detroit to Dallas, they are facing intense pressure from voters and local groups to save jobs threatened by cuts at weapons plants and military bases.
"It's a dilemma because defense means jobs," said Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), member of a House Appropriations panel considering President Bush's request for $292 billion in Pentagon outlays in the next fiscal year. And so, he said, many Democrats are thrown into an awkward posture: "I'm for cuts everywhere else but count me out back home."
In the defense battles ahead, such Democrats may be hard pressed to avoid looking like pork-barreling hypocrites. At the same time, the conflicts they face should help the Administration restrain any budget-slashing fervor.
To shift attention from the dilemma over their own pet projects, the Democrats are mounting public relations offensives to attack the President's priorities. They also are seeking a bipartisan commission to review proposed base closings and pushing measures to cushion the economic blow of cutbacks on production lines and bases.
But at bottom, they are still trying to bring home slices of Pentagon bacon.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats are fighting to win funding for the V-22 Osprey, a hybrid helicopter-and-fixed-wing troop carrier that is being developed in Philadelphia and Texas. In Michigan, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, a liberal who faces reelection this year, is doing some fancy maneuvering to protect the M-1 tank, which the President wants to eliminate but his constituents want to keep.
Democrats in California, where one in five defense procurement dollars are spent and military bases are profuse, are dug in on a number of fronts.
"I told the councilmen, 'It may come down to the point where we have to settle for less than a loaf of bread,' " said Torres, who said he would endorse moderate production of the radar-evading B-2 as well as funds for more traditionally liberal causes such as increased housing and education.
The partial loaf Torres has in mind is substantial--about half of the 133 bombers the Air Force wants to build, or scores more than the 15-plane cutoff sought by critics aiming for at least $50 billion in savings.
Further, to deflect criticism in case the 10,000 defense-related jobs in his district are reduced, Torres is organizing House Small Business Committee hearings on ways to mitigate adverse economic effects.
Other liberals who are selectively defending defense range from Rep. Mel Levine of Santa Monica, in whose district a part of nearly every major weapon system is being developed, to Rep. Ronald V. Dellums of Berkeley, the fiery liberal chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military installations.
Though the Democrats' predicament was inevitable once East Bloc tensions eased, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, a former congressman hip to Congress' vulnerabilities, certainly made it worse by his choice of potential bases to close. Ninety-five percent of the potential job losses from the three dozen he cited would fall in Democratic districts.
"The Administration stanched the bleeding on cutbacks in procurement by checkmating Congress on bases, exposing some of their major critics to the old pork-barreling charge," said Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento).
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. Thomas M. Foglietta, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has organized a bipartisan group of 31 lawmakers to protest the proposed closing of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
In a letter to Cheney, signed by such other liberals as Reps. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) and Peter H. Kostmayer (D-Pa.), they used the same argument that Torres and other Californians are making to save the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. They called the Philadelphia facility "the most efficient and most productive shipyard in the Navy."
Gray, Kostmayer and other Pennsylvania Democrats are supporting the V-22 Osprey, which tops a list of conventional weapons the Administration wants to kill to save money.