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Senate backs missile defense system

97-3 vote marks big shift for Democrats

March 17, 1999
Web posted at: 5:45 p.m. EST (2245 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, March 17) -- The Senate Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill calling for a nationwide defense against ballistic missile attack. The vote marked the most significant bipartisan move toward such a system since Ronald Reagan introduced his "Star Wars" initiative.

On a 97 to 3 vote, the Senate adopted the bill committing the military to deploy a national missile defense as soon as "technologically possible." The system would aim to deter a limited strike from "rogue nations" rather than combatting a full-scale nuclear attack.

The House takes up a similar version Thursday.

Senate Republicans who had fought for an anti-missile system since Reagan introduced his Strategic Defense Initiative a decade and a half ago were triumphant.

"By this vote we have taken the necessary first step to protecting the United States from long-range ballistic missile attack," said Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican who sponsored the bill.

But Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) one of a handful of Democrats to oppose the final version, said the bill "jeopardizes years of gains in achieving arms reductions." He called President Bill Clinton's decision to lift a longstanding veto threat "a serious mistake."

Change in Clinton stance shifts tide

The vote represented a shift in the stances of both the Clinton administration and Senate Democrats. Until Tuesday, the White House had threatened to veto the bill, arguing that it could hinder arms-control efforts with Russia and that it was bad policy to deploy such an expensive system based only on technological merit.

Similar arguments had been used by Senate Democrats, who twice last year narrowly blocked the same measure from coming to the floor for consideration.

The measure had picked up support after missile tests by North Korea and Iran and recent disclosures that China may have stolen nuclear secrets from a U.S. weapons laboratory to improve its long-range missile capability.

On Wednesday, just three Democrats voted against the measure: Wellstone, and Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Senate passage was assured Tuesday when the administration said it was satisfied with several amendments designed to make the measure more palatable to Democrats.

One of those asserts that the United States will continue to negotiate cuts in Russia's nuclear forces, which Democrats said would assuage fears that the measure might violate restrictions on a missile defense in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Critics worry about arms control

However, critics said that by failing to incorporate language that would specifically require adherence to the treaty, the overall measure could face opposition from Russia's leaders and its parliament, which is considering ratification of the second strategic arms reduction treaty, or Start II.

Tom Collina of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which opposes the legislation, called the result "sort of vacuous policy" that he said will do little except annoy China and Russia.

"The Democrats are running scared on this," he said. "The Republicans have had this issue for years. Now the threat has appeared and the Democrats were caught flat-footed."

Cost, type of system still to be hammered out

The legislation approved Wednesday does not specify a time frame for deployment, the costs or the specifics of the defense system to be used.

The Senate approved an amendment on Tuesday proposed by Cochran, to ensure that the cost of any eventual missile defense system be subject to the annual congressional appropriations process.

A report last July by a panel chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld found that Washington might have "little or no warning" before its enemies deployed a ballistic missile, and that the threat was "broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported."

In January, the administration increased its budget proposal for a national missile defense to $10.5 billion, from $6 billion, between now and 2005. The administration has said it will decide next year whether to build an anti-missile system -- perhaps based in Alaska or North Dakota, or on ships -- that would be ready by 2005.

That type of anti-missile system is differs radically from Reagan's SDI vision of using lasers in space as a shield against attack. Even on a smaller scale, the current program remains hampered by technological problems.


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Wednesday, March 17, 1999

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