The House eased the path yesterday for possible presidential approval of continued B-1 Bomber construction by voting 243 to 178 against an amendment that would have stopped the bomber's production.
President Carter, who during the political campaign characterized the B-1 bomber as an example of a "wasteful" weapon which should not go forward, is expected to back off that position in a public statement today or Thursday.
House Speaker Thomas P.O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass) said before the House debate began yesterday that he favored keeping the B-1 in production, partly because it would provide the President with another bargaining chip in negotiating with the Soviets.
Although O'Neill said he had not spoken with Carter on the B-1, it is unlikely that the Speaker would have announced a national defense position contrary to the President's shortly before the White House statement.
George H. Mahon (D-Tex), chairman of the House Appropriations Committe, said that the White House was anxious to have the House vote on teh B-1 befor Carter announced his position. Like O'Neill, Mahon said he had not spoken with the President about the B-1 of late. But Mahon did say he had spoken with Defense Secretary Harold Brown about the B-1 and expected that Carter would indeed continue its production.
Sources at the White House said that Carter had closeted himself with raw data on the B-1 bomber in preparing his public position on the plane that he had assailed as a candidate.
Rep. Joseph P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.) sponsored the amendment which provided the freshest test of congressional sentiment on the bomber. The Pentagon estimates the plane will cost $101.7 million a copy while the General Accounting Office puts the figure at $112 million. Either way, it would be the most expensive combat plane ever built.
Addabbo, in calling for a halt to its production, said that B-1 is "the most expensive white elephant ever proposed" and could not survive against the defenses the Soviets would put up against it in the 1980s and 1990s.
Further, said Addabbo and his allies in yesterday's House debate, there are cheaper alternatives to the B-1 bomber that would still keep the deterrence provided by bombers, missiles and submarines in force. These alternatives, they said, include modernizing the B-52 and modifying the 747 civilian transport to carry cruise missiles.
Specifically, Addabbo sought to cut $1.4 million in B-1 money out of the bill appropriating $110 million to finance Pentagon military programs in fiscal 1978. The amendment would have stopped production of the five bombers to be produced in fiscal 1978.
Although Addabbo did not attempt to touch the $443 million in B-1 research money in the appropriations bill, he sought to slash $1,172.6 million to buy the five bombers, $120.8 million to start production on additional planes and $136 million for spare parts.
Mahon and other House members backing the B-1 said it is the best plane for maintaining the bomber deterrent. The B-52, they said, has got ten too old.
Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), in making an impassioned plea for the B-1 which Rockwell Internatioal is producing in his home state of California, said there were Soviet agents in the United States watching how the House voted on the plane.
The congressman appeared to reveal new intelligence on the Soviet Backfire bomber by telling House members that its production recently had been increased from 5 to 12 planes a month.
Rep. James F.Lloyd (D-Calif.) said the B'1 is "the right weapon at the right time" and stopping its production would send "a clear signal" to the Soviet Union that "we no longer care for the triad system."
"Certainly," countered Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), "we can find a cheaper signal."
Currently, the Air Force has three B-1 bombers flying and a fourth test model under construction. The first three combat versions of the plane are being produced with fiscal 1977 money. The defeat of the Addabbo amendment yesterday virtually assures that five more combat versions of the plane will be produced in fiscal 1978.
Although the Air Force wants to build 244 B-1 bombes and has already sunk $3 billion inot the program, Carter, if he does keep the bomber in production, is expected to reduce the sunk $3 billion into the program, Car.
After the defeat of the Addabbo amendment, the House went on to other issues in the largest defense appropriation bill ever written but did not finish with it. Voting on the bill is scheduled to resume Thursday.