WASHINGTON — In defiance of a presidential veto threat, the Senate approved a $265.3-billion defense authorization bill Wednesday that would give President Clinton $7.5 billion more than he had asked in Pentagon spending.
Passage came on a vote of 64 to 34 after lawmakers agreed to water down a controversial Republican-drafted provision that would have required the Administration to deploy a national missile defense system by the year 2003.
The measure now goes to a joint House-Senate conference committee, where the Administration is expected to mount a vigorous campaign to eliminate several key provisions that officials had warned might prompt Clinton to veto the bill.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry has said that he still is not sure whether he will recommend a veto. "I still have problems" with the bill, he told reporters.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that the lawmakers still face "high hurdles" in removing enough of the objectionable provisions to avoid a presidential veto.
Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was even more pessimistic. "This is a bill that is not anywhere near becoming law." He said that he was "just amazed, really, by [the] stupidity of what we are doing . . . today."
Besides the dispute with the Administration, the conferees also must resolve sharp differences between the Senate version of the bill and a measure that the House passed almost three months ago.
The Senate measure, for example, follows Clinton's recommendations to kill the controversial B-2 bomber and to build a third Seawolf submarine. The House bill would keep the B-2 alive but eliminate the Seawolf project.
The action on the national anti-missile defense system reflected a bipartisan compromise--worked out just before Congress left for its August recess--that diluted a stronger provision written into the original bill.
The initial proposal would have required the Administration to deploy an anti-missile defense system by the year 2003 at several sites--apparently in violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
By contrast, the compromise approved Tuesday would only require that the Pentagon have such a system ready to field by that date but leaves it up to the Administration and Congress to decide whether to deploy it.
It also calls on the Administration to begin formal negotiations with Russia to make any changes in the ABM treaty that it believes would be needed to deploy such a national anti-missile system.
Although the compromise plan leaves intact an extra $300 million earmarked for the program, it represents a setback for Republicans, who had sought to make it a key element of their new stepped-up defense program.
The House version has a similar provision, but it is less objectionable to the Administration than even the compromise version in the Senate bill. Clinton had threatened to veto the original Senate plan.
Despite the compromise on the missile issue, the Republicans won some significant battles during the weeks of floor action on the bill:
* The overall legislation would revamp much of Clinton's military budget and force the Administration to spend more than it wants on weapon-modernization and reserve programs.
* At the same time, it would sharply reduce spending for such key Administration programs as subsidies for technology development and aid to countries of the former Soviet Union to help dismantle nuclear weapons.
* It also would sharply restrict U.S. financing for United Nations peacekeeping missions--a move that the Administration contends would "undermine the President's ability to carry out . . . U.S. foreign policy" effectively.
Clinton has proposed a $257.8-billion military budget for fiscal 1996, which begins Oct. 1--a decline of 4.3% from current levels. The House version of the bill provides $267.3 billion for defense.
The GOP push for faster development of a national missile-defense system was one of the major elements in the "contract with America" that GOP candidates used as a campaign manifesto.