Deomcrats Withdraw Missile Defense Restrictions

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SEEKING TO SHOW solidarity with the president after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, congressional Democrats largely shelved legislative efforts to limit the Bush administration's ballistic missile defense plans.

Although Democrats sought in early September to put conditions on and cut funding for the Bush administration's nearly $8.3 billion request for missile defense spending, it now appears that the administration's request will survive virtually unscathed. The Senate is on the verge of approving the full request, while the House passed September 25 a $400 million cut. The funding is included as part of the two houses' fiscal year 2002 defense spending bills, which must be reconciled in conference and then sent to the president for signature.

Democrats began targeting missile defense funding in July, after the administration announced its proposed missile defense programs would conflict with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty "in months, not years." President George W. Bush has said that, if the United States does not reach an agreement with Russia to "move beyond" the treaty, the United States will unilaterally withdraw from the accord, which prohibits the two countries from building nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles.

Led by Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), in a straight party vote of 13-12 the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a revised version of the administration's missile defense request on September 7. The bill redistributed $1.3 billion from the request to other Pentagon programs and barred funds for missile defense activities "inconsistent" with the ABM Treaty.

To conduct tests or other activities banned by the ABM Treaty, the bill required the president to certify to Congress that any such action was in the United States' national security interest. Congress would then have 30 days to vote on whether to fund the activity. According to Levin, this requirement would have applied even if Washington unilaterally withdrew from the treaty. Republicans vowed they would fight this restriction and funding cut.

However, eight days after the terrorist attacks, Levin offered a new version of this bill. The new bill still redistributed $1.3 billion from the administration's request, but it did not include the controversial missile defense-related limitation. Instead, Levin chose to incorporate this restriction into another new bill that could be debated at a "later and more appropriate time." Explaining the changes, Levin said, "This is the wrong time for divisive debate on issues of national defense."

Two days later, Levin and Senator John Warner (R-VA) cosponsored an amendment that restored the $1.3 billion in funding for missile defense, although the amendment gave the president the option to use these funds for anti-terrorism programs. The Senate adopted the amendment September 21 and is expected to pass the full bill in early October.

Although ultimately going along with Levin, a number of Democratic senators were not pleased with removing the ABM language from the defense bill because they feared the move would give Bush too much leeway on missile defense, according to Democratic Senate aides. …