The Senate passed a defense appropriations bill Tuesday that would shower the Pentagon with $6.4 billion that the Clinton administration says it does not need, including hundreds of millions extra for a controversial national anti-missile defense system.
The $243 billion legislation also would provide $1.5 billion for a third Seawolf attack-submarine, but it left out $540 million provided in a House version of the bill for more B-2 Stealth bombers.
The Senate bill and the similar House version run strongly against the grain of the Clinton administration’s military budget request for the fiscal year beginning this October.
The current House version of the annual appropriations bill would provide even more money to the Pentagon - $244 billion.
The disparities set the stage for a likely showdown between President Clinton and the Republican-dominated Congress over the appropriate level of military spending.
The administration has argued that the post-Cold War military drawdown is just about over; congressional Republicans think Pentagon cuts have been too deep and have gone on for too long.
All three views - those of the House, the Senate and the White House - must be reconciled before the Pentagon receives its formal funding for the new fiscal year.
The Senate bill passed 62-35. Forty-eight Republicans and 14 Democrats voted in favor of the measure; thirty-one Democrats and four Republicans voted against it.
Much of the defense funding debate has revolved around money for the state-of-the-art - and stunningly expensive - Seawolf submarine, B-2 Stealth bomber and, especially, the missile-defense system that opponents still call by its Reagan-era nickname, “Star Wars.”
“No matter what you call it,” Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who opposes such a system, said on the Senate floor Tuesday, it is “a brand new, gold-plated boondoggle.”
“Against whom are we going to deploy a national missile defense system, and for what?” he said. “You don’t solve our deficit problems by embarking on this kind of program.”
The Star Wars concept emerged at the height of the Cold War as a space-born insurance policy that would knock down Soviet missiles before they could strike the United States.
With the end of the Cold War and the sweeping Pentagon drawdown, the idea seemed expensive and unnecessary. Critics also argued that such a system would violate the 25-year-old anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty.
But it was revived last year with the Republican seizure of Congress and the House Republicans’ “Contract With America.” Scaled down from the original, Republicans contend such a system still would protect against nuclear terrorism and attacks from Third World rogue states like Iraq or Libya.
The president asked Congress for about $3 billion for anti-missile defense, but Republicans have added more than $600 million to that in bills in both houses of Congress.
But senators on Tuesday night, debating the Senate’s defense authorization bill, seemed to apply further brakes to the missile proposal, stressing that it is envisioned as a research and development project that does not involve deployment and would not violate treaties.
“There is no money authorized for deployment in this bill,” said Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine. “We believe this proposal is consistent with the tenor of the ABM treaty.”
The Senate does not seek a “geodesic dome” of protection, Cohen said, but a limited system to guard against maverick nuclear attacks.
“What we want here is some form of protection for the American people,” Cohen said. “We owe that to the American people.”
xxxx THE VOTE Here’s how Northwest senators voted on a bill appropriating $243 billion for defense in fiscal 1996. A “yes” vote was a vote to approve the bill. Idaho - Larry Craig, R., yes; Dirk Kempthorne, R., yes. Washington - Slade Gorton, R., yes; Patty Murray, D., yes.