Somebody is wrong about SALT II. The Democrats think the issue of whether the arms pact is still alive is biggest thing that has happened to them since Ronald Reagan won the presidency in l980 and began making them eat dirt.
The Republicans, on the other hand, aren't sure that it will matter in the upcoming election. There has been some protest from Senate moderates, but opposing the president is something that does not come easily, particularly in a campaign year.
Sen. Paula Hawkins of Florida, who is in a stiff fight for survival against Gov. Bob Graham, said the "shift in gears" on arms control is giving her no problems in her campaign.
"We are patriotic people," she said. "We support the president."
Says Sen. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota: "It is not a problem. People see that the treaty has already been vacated by the Soviets."
House Democrats are showing unprecedented unity and conviction. For once they have a national security question where they are opposing the president instead of each other.
Speaker Tip O'Niell, who has a demonstrated an institutional reluctance to take on a president on war and peace, waded right in with a speech at New York University, where he said it "was the wrong announcement, made at the wrong time for no apparent reason."
Majority Leader Jim Wright promptly took to the floor to express Democratic outrage and made himself head of a task force to mobilize the troops.
You have only to look at the names on the pro-SALT bills to see that the Democrats have found, finally, a national security issue they can agree on. In the past four years they have regularly gone at each others' throats on contra aid and and money for MX missiles.
Two Democrats who helped the president to keep the MX alive, Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin and Norman D. Dicks of Washington, who were hammered by liberal colleagues for their defection to the "Peacekeeper" ranks, now are vying with each other for custody of SALT II.
Aspin is sponsoring a bill with Foreign Affairs Chairman Dante Fascell of Florida, calling for the president to comply with the treaty limits. Dicks, with Rep. Les Aucoin (D -- Ore.) is on a tough,second-stage measure that would cut off funds for weapons that exceeded SALT II limits.
AuCoin thinks the crunch will come when the House faces the question of giving the president a "national security" out on exceeding the limits. A president who could certify human rights progress in El Salvador at the height of the Death Squads wouldn't hesitate to vouch for the indispensability of some new nuke. It will take nerve to stand up to the Gipper and question his arms-control credentials.
Dicks, meanwhile, is extremely proud of the harpoon he is carrying in his back that was planted there by Richard Perle, the Defense Department's dark eminence of administration anti-arms controllers. Dicks has videotapes of their June 6 showdown, when Perle told him that Congress had to choose between Reagan and Gorbachev on the SALT II limits.
"Anyone," says Dicks, "who wants to continue to support the SALT provisions, which they have been doing for the past four years, is now unpatriotic."
The president is obviously displeased with this show of force from a previously supine opposition. At his press conference, he denied that he had made a decision. He is, of course, also getting urgent protests from Europe, where the scrapping of SALT II is regarded as casual and gratutitous -- a ghastly sequel to the bombing raid on Libya, which flattened their tourist trade.
The real White House response, which suggested that only improper packaging, not substance, was the problem, was reported by Lou Cannon. The administration is planning to create a blue-ribbon commission to find an "alternate arms control" proposal. Actually, it is intended as a commission to co-opt Democrats, as the mention of Brent Scowcroft, the master hand-holder who brought in the Democratic defectors on MX, indicates. He persuaded Aspin, Dicks and former representative (now senator) Albert Gore that MX would put Reagan in an arms-control negotiating frame of mind.
After two years of bitter battles, the administration got 50 MXs instead of the l00 it had in mind.
Said Dicks to Perle at the hot hearing: "You complain because you only got 50 MXs. We got nothing."
Dicks says a commission aimed at seducing Democrats will not work this time.
"We are not going to roll over on this one," he promises.
Both parties report a great absence of mail about SALT II. This is not deterring the Democrats. They feel, for the first time in a long time, they are doing the right thing.