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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Senate, House Approve Bills Calling for NMD Deployment
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Craig Cerniello

ON MARCH 17, following the addition of two amendments—one calling for continued nuclear force reductions with Russia—the Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation sponsored by Thad Cochran (R-MS) stating that it is U.S. policy to deploy an "effective" national missile defense (NMD) system "as soon as is technologically possible." The next day, the House approved an unamended bill backed by Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA), which states simply "That it is the policy of the United States to deploy a national missile defense."

A House-Senate conference committee will meet after the Spring recess (March 27 to April 11) to reconcile differences between the two bills. The Clinton administration has endorsed the Senate language because it recognizes the importance of U.S. arms control objectives.

Congressional approval of the bills, both of which were first introduced last year, came less than two months after Secretary of Defense William Cohen announced a major restructuring of the administration's NMD program. (See ACT, January/February 1999.) Although the administration has added $6.6 billion to its fiscal years 2000–2005 defense budget to support an NMD deployment option, no decision on deployment is scheduled until June 2000 at the earliest.

Amending the Cochran Bill

The White House had threatened to veto the original version of the Cochran bill because it based an NMD deployment decision on just one factor: technological readiness. In a February 3 letter to Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), National Security Adviser Samuel Berger stated that the administration's deployment decision would reflect four criteria: the proposed system's effectiveness based on the state of NMD technology; whether the long-range ballistic missile threat to the United States from so-called "rogue states" had materialized as quickly as anticipated; the cost of NMD deployment and the effect of deployment on arms control.

The White House withdrew its veto threat—and most Senate Democrats withdrew their objections to the bill—after the Senate adopted two amendments on March 16 by identical 99–0 votes. The first amendment, sponsored by Cochran, revises the original bill to state that "It is the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate) with funding subject to the annual authorization of appropriations and the annual appropriation of funds for National Missile Defense" (amendment in italics).

The second amendment, introduced by Mary Landrieu (D-LA), declares that "It is the policy of the United States to seek continued negotiated reductions in Russian nuclear forces."

President Clinton praised the amended bill, which passed 97-3, in a March 17 statement. "By specifying that any NMD deployment must be subject to the authorization and appropriations process, the legislation now makes clear that no decision on deployment has been made," he said. Clinton added that "By putting the Senate on record as continuing to support negotiated reductions in strategic nuclear arms, the bill reaffirms that our missile defense policy must take into account our arms control objectives." The amended bill does not, however, make an NMD deployment decision contingent on progress in arms reduction.

Furthermore, some observers have argued that the administration softened its position on NMD by supporting legislation that does not explicitly address all four of its deployment criteria. Yet Clinton reiterated in his statement that the administration's deployment decision will be based on the same four factors outlined in Berger's February 3 letter. In a March 18 briefing, Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon also said that the amended Cochran bill will not alter the administration's schedule for making an NMD deployment decision next year.

On the morning of March 18, hours before a scheduled vote on the Weldon bill, approximately 250 House members received a rare, 90-minute classified briefing on the missile threat to the United States. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other members of the Rumsfeld Commission described the results of their July 1998 report to Congress, in which they concluded that the United States may have "little or no warning" before facing a long-range ballistic missile threat from rogue states, such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran. (See ACT, June/July 1998.)

In the House floor debate (as well as that of the Senate), the question of whether the United States would soon face a rogue-state ICBM threat was not as heavily contested as in the past, probably due to the cumulative effect of the Rumsfeld report, the August 1998 North Korean test of the Taepo Dong-1 missile, and Cohen's January 20 NMD announcements. Recent allegations of Chinese espionage at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1980s also heightened perceptions of U.S. vulnerability to missile attack. Instead, the congressional debates covered such issues as the effectiveness of "hit-to-kill" technology, the cost of deployment, the future of the ABM Treaty and the impact of NMD deployment on the START process.

The vote in the House (317-105) was much closer than in the Senate because the Republican leadership refused to allow the introduction of amendments. A senior administration official said on March 26 that the White House had not changed its position on the unacceptability of the Weldon language should it survive the conference committee.

Consistent with their reaction to Cohen's January 20 NMD announcements, Russia and China were critical of the developments on Capitol Hill. In a March 18 statement, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, "We are talking here of a serious threat to the whole process of limiting nuclear weapons and to the stability of a strategic situation which has taken decades of international agreements to build up," a point reinforced two days later by Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi also warned on March 18 that NMD development "will have a negative impact on the global strategic balance."