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Senate GOP Wins Funding Battle for Missile Defense

Politics: Amendment will allow President Bush to use an extra $814 million that Democrats had intended for other uses.

June 27, 2002|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans Wednesday scored a victory in their effort to provide the entire $7.6 billion President Bush has sought for missile defense next year, and signaled strong congressional support for one of Bush's top priorities.

After two days of intermittent debate, the Senate amended the defense authorization bill to allow Bush to spend on missile defense up to $814 million in funds that the Senate Armed Services Committee had earmarked for military shipbuilding and other purposes.

The latest battle over funds for the program, which is aimed at protecting the country from long-range missile attacks, had become an important test of whether opponents of missile defense could weaken or delay the program.

Missile defense critics saw the committee's action as an opportunity to slow a high-priced and controversial program that appears to be gaining momentum. Administration officials and their allies contended that the panel was trying to "cut the heart" from the antimissile effort.

Bush had threatened to veto the bill if the money was not restored. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday that the 12% cut "would be particularly destructive of the entire missile defense program."

The victory comes in a year when two major obstacles to the program have evaporated.

The 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union, which restricted development of long-range antimissile systems, was officially abandoned this month. Foreign opposition to the U.S. program has also appeared to subside.

The Senate approved two amendments. The first, offered by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), said the $814 million could be restored if an administration review of inflation showed that earlier predictions were too pessimistic, and that more money than expected would be available for defense accounts.

The second amendment, offered by Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), declared that counter-terrorism is the Senate's top priority for defense spending.

This language, while suggesting that a move by Bush to restore the money to missile defense would go against the will of the Senate, would not stop him from doing so.

The bill is expected to receive final approval this week, and then must be considered by a House-Senate conference committee. The House earlier approved the administration's full request for missile defense.

Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy and a longtime missile-defense advocate, said the Senate action was "absolutely a sign of [the critics'] weakness" and "an important straw in the wind" about prospects for the realization of the missile defense project.

Republican leaders wanted a roll call vote on the issue, which would have been awkward for centrist Democrats who do not want to appear to be voting against the idea of protecting the nation from missile attack, Senate aides noted. The amendments were finally approved by unanimous consent, which left no record of individual senators' positions.

John Isaacs, president of the pro arms-control group Council for a Livable World, said the outcome reflected the narrow divisions in Congress over the issue.

He said he believed Levin would have pressed for a vote on cutting the $814 million if he thought he could have lined up the needed 51 votes. "But he didn't have that, so he tried to produce the best deal he could," Isaacs said.

Isaacs said that with the ABM Treaty gone and political opposition weaker than in the past, the only remaining hurdle for the administration was the viability of the complex missile defense technology.

He added: "That's a high hurdle."

In arguing to shift the money, Democrats said they had moved only funds that were for duplicative or unclear purposes. They contended that because the missile defense program had about $4 billion left unspent from the current year's program, officials would still have about $10 billion to spend next year.

"That is adequate and sufficient in our view," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee's strategic subcommittee.

Democrats also contended that the military has other pressing needs, including shipbuilding and security, and that the missile defense mission is not as urgent as counter-terrorism.

But Republicans insisted that the missile defense threat is urgent and growing steadily, from countries such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran.

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