By a 218-to-156 vote, the House yesterday approved funding for a $2 billion nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the Carter administration does not want.
The carrier was the major issue in a $119.3 billion defense appropriations bill the House hopes to finish work on today.
Although Appropriations Committee Chairman George H. Mahon (D-Tex. and ranking defense subcommittee member Jack Edwards (R-Ala.) supported the president, even normally liberal members appeared to be influenced by the growing Soviet military build up and arguments that the nation needed a strong Navy to counter it.
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Though the secretary of defense, the secretary of the navy and other administration officials opposed building the nuclear carrier, House and Senate Armed Services committees authorized it and the House Appropriations Committee funded it.
The administration argued that the nuclear ship would be too costly, reducing the funds available for smaller, more cost-effective ships.
But Rep. Samuel S. Stratton (D-N.Y.) called the carriers and the Navy the only thing that "gives us an edge over the Soviets." Stratton said a vote for eliminating the nuclear-powered carrier would reverse the trend of stopping the cutbacks of military forces and responding to the threat of a Soviet buildup.
However, Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), who led the fight for the administration on the floor, said the United States could build and operate three conventional carriers for the price of two nuclear carriers.
Proponents of the nuclear carrier, in addition to arguing that opponents were "toying dangerously" with U.S. security, said eventually the nuclear carrier would be more efficient since it could operate for years without refueling and would not be dependent on oil from Arab states.
Rep. Bill Burlison (D-Mo.) attempted to amend the bill to build a conventional aircraft carrier for an estimated $1.5 billion instead, but his amendment was knocked out on a point of order. Later, in opposing the nuclear carrier, Burlison said the country could not save only the $2 billion the carrier would cost but also approximately $2 billion necessary to build escort ships for it.
Rep. Richard C. White (D-Tex.) said, "As the cost of oil goes up we can be assured the cost of a conventional carrier will go up." He said a conventional carrier needs refueling and makes a convenient target while doing so.
Rep. John Flynt Jr. (D-Ga.) said the nuclear carrier was the only carrier that could be built with fiscal 1979 funds, since the defense bill did not provide for building conventional carriers.
But Yates said there was some question as to whether the Newport News shipbuilding yard could accommodate a nuclear carrier. He said a nuclear carrier scheduled to be finished in 1982 was already "under construction without a contract." He said it would help the Defense Department to allow a year to bring "some semblance of order into an area of uncertainty." He said approving the nuclear carrier funds would only complicate the shipbuilding mess."
A National Security Council study concluded that the United States should disperse its seabased aircraft more widely, requiring a greater number of carriers. The administration favors the conventionally powered carrier, partly because of hopes the ship can operate with the vertically launched aircraft now being developed, thus allwoing it to carry more planes. At present the Navy has operating or on the drawing board four nuclear carriers and eight conventional carriers.
In other action, the House voted 252 to 128 to consolidate Army and Navy helicopter pilot training, a move the amendment's author, Rep. William L. Dickinson (R-Ala.), said would save $100 million in five years.
And it rejected 2 percent cuts in portions of the bill. Rep. Harold L. Volkmer's (D-Mo.) attempted 2 percent cut of service personnel money failed by a 327-to-53 vote.