IT SHOULD COME as no surprise in this season of unrelieved melancholy about arms control that the nuclear freeze, which is the one way to tell Ronald Reagan to get on with it, is in trouble in the House.
The last time the freeze came up on the floor, on March 16, Republican leader Robert Michel thought he was "doomed to lose." But spectacular mismanagement on the part of the Democratic leadership allowed Clement Zablocki of Wisconsin, who is at best lukewarm about the freeze, to handle the bill, simply because he asserted his prerogatives as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. His inability to answer questions about its practical effects made him a target of opportunity for Republicans who triumphantly brought about a delay in the vote.
Since then, in an effort to exploit the unexpected opening, the president has been on a rhetorical rampage of incredible range and volume.
He has unleashed the Rev. Jerry Falwell to assist him in his religious crusade against the "evil empire" of the Soviets. He has proclaimed it his "sacred goal to make arms reductions." He has unveiled a new offer to the Soviets on theater nuclear forces in Europe and jarringly coupled this promise of a new treaty with heavy hints that he is about to charge the Kremlin with violating treaties already in effect, which is hardly an atmosphere conducive to negotiation.
His "vision of the future," which he arrived at with the help of the unrepentant bomb-maker, Dr. Edward Teller, is a chilling proposal to transfer the arms race to outer space. Meantime, he is insisting on the full increase in his military budget and predicting a "Social-Security type consensus" on a "new" basing mode for the MX missile, one which turns out to be an old one that was rejected long ago.
To add to peacenik gloom, the Catholic bishops presented the toned-down draft of their pastoral letter, a document which the administration found "substantially improved" over previous, less equivocal versions. It is expected to provide ammunition for freeze opponents in the House debate which begins Wednesday.
In the March debate, nothing illustrated the flinching of House members at the prospect of actually stopping the arms race than the vote on an amendment offered by Rep. Mark D. Siljander, (R-Mich.) He suggested both a freeze "and/or reduction," which, in effect, tells Ronald Reagan to go on doing what he is doing. The amendment was a welcome way out for congressmen who are caught between constituent clamor for progress towards peace and their own natural desire to opt for new arms like the B-1 and the MX.
So alluring was the Siljander amendment that it came within six votes of winning. The most astonishing vote cast for it came from Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, the progressive Republican who was an original sponsor of the freeze resolution. Leach offered cover for other Republicans who are uneasy with the freeze. His stand brought him rare favor with Leader Michel, who seldom finds common ground with the chairman of the Ripon Society.
His vote also brought him the outraged attention of the freeze lobby who descended on him in such numbers that he had to issue a formal clarifying press release.
He had no intention of undercutting the freeze, he says. He just could not find it within himself to vote against any language that called for "reductions" in nuclear arms. He understands that passage of the Siljander amendment would have been interpreted as a vote of confidence in the president's approach, but he insists that is not what the words say.
As to what he will do when the Siljander amendment is offered again, Leach says he will "probably not" vote for it. "I expect to actively oppose any efforts to render the freeze message, implicity or explicitly, meaningless."
Michel has hopes for the new, minimally modified version of Siljander when it is offered again. He intends to have "extensive talks" with Leach, who has become the pivotal figure in the struggle.
About the only bright spot in this picture is, ironically, more bad news, or, to date, the worst news of all. Negotiator Paul Nitze came home from Geneva to tell members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there is "little chance" for any accord. No progress, he said, is being made.
Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) called it "the most distressing session on arms control" of his four years in the Senate.
But this could help, it seems. One of the arguments pushed hardest against the freeze, is that it would "pull the rug out from under our Geneva negotiations."
Freeze advocates can at least now ask,"What negotiations?"