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. One of the aides, however, noted that Levin’s action was “understandable,” contending the “politics are overwhelming on this.”
Although he acknowledged in a September 24 speech on the Senate floor that “this is not time to debate the [ABM] language” contained in the original version of the bill, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) warned the administration against withdrawing from the ABM Treaty. He said such an action would be “counterproductive” because the United States needs help from the international community, including Russia and China, in combating global terrorism. Both Moscow and Beijing oppose U.S. missile defense plans and want to preserve the ABM Treaty.
House action on missile defense funding also changed following the terrorist attacks. Prior to September 11, Representatives Ike Skelton (D-MO) and John Spratt (D-SC) had filed an amendment to cut $918 million from the president’s missile defense request. The cut would have concentrated on plans to build missile defense facilities and silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, beginning in April 2002.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, however, Skelton and Spratt agreed to compromise on the cut because Republican and Democratic leaders wanted to pass the defense bill as quickly as possible with the least possible amount of contentious debate. The party leaders agreed that the full House would consider the defense bill, as passed by the House Armed Services Committee August 1, with only one amendment consisting of several compromises on controversial issues.
One of the compromises was to transfer a total of $400 million from missile defense to counter- and anti-terrorism activities. The reduction largely came from the Space Based Laser and sea-based midcourse interceptor programs and will not affect funding for Fort Greely. Speaking September 25 on the House floor, Spratt described the compromise as “good” and explained that the Fort Greely issue was set aside in the interest of bipartisanship. But Spratt said that he expected the issue would be revisited in the next budget cycle.
Explaining their views on the current climate in Congress, several House and Senate Democratic aides agreed that both missile defense proponents and skeptics felt the terrorist attacks reinforced their positions. Missile defense supporters have said the unexpected nature of the attacks reaffirms that the United States is vulnerable and must be prepared to defend itself against all kinds of attacks. Critics say the attacks underscore that a ballistic missile attack is not the most urgent threat and that funding should be devoted to countering more probable threats.
One House aide predicted that the terrorist attacks would probably make those congressmen who did not feel strongly about missile defense more likely to support missile defense as part of a broader homeland defense and anti-terrorism strategy. The aide, however, added that the most important factor at this time is that nobody wants to oppose the president.