Setting the stage for a showdown next week on a vetoed defense procurement bill, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee yesterday criticized President Carter for failing to make Congress a full partner in setting defense policy.
In a hard-hitting letter to the president, Rep. Melvin Prive (D-Ill.) wrote that Carter had implied in his veto message that members of Congress had knowingly voted for a bill that weakens the national defense just to support a $2 billion nuclear-powered aircraft carrier opposed by the White House.
"This charge is most grievous to me," the usually low-keyed Price wrote.
he House chairman's letter, following similar protests about the veto by man of the Senate Armed Services Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, marked a new low between Carter and defense leaders in Congress.
The House is expected to sustain the presidential veto of the $37 billion procurement authorization bill next week, but the tenor of Price's letter indicates that his committee, in rewriting the vetoed money bill, will do more than remove the $2 billion for the Nimitz-class nuclear carrier.
Carter and other administration leaders have urged that the procurement bill be left intact after the carrier which Carter objected to is deleted. But Price and his colleagues are determined to assert their authority over defense policy in this confrontation.
"It looks like we're going back to square one on the whole aircraft carrier issue, fighting it all over again next year if the veto is sustained," said one congressional source.
The bill that Carter vetoed contained money to start on a mini-carrier, a conventionally powered carrier championed by Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.). But the House committee is likely to delete that money, along with funds earmarked for the Nimitz carrier.
Price's six-page letter was hand-delivered to the White House late yesterday afternoon and released to committee members shortly after that.
In the letter Price disputed the figures Carter had used in his veto message, but said his "principal concern with your message is the tone with which the actions of the Congress are addressed."
"Nowhere do I find any recognition that the Congress is capable of making an independent contribution to the weapon development process," Price said.
"The burden of your message is that Congress does not have a place in defense policymaking except insofar as it is prepared to rubber stamp recomendations of the executive branch. I reject that philosphy.
"I believe the Congress deserves to be treated as a partner in defense decision making," scolded Price, "not as a poor relation."
The House Armed Services Committee chairman said that he "must reluctantly tell you that I cannot accept the reasoning in your veto message" and will ask the House to override it.
Price requested that the president explain the figures cited in his veto message, which the chairman said do not jibe with his committee's analysis. He also noted that the president had failed to mention in his veto message that Navy Secretary W. Graham Claytor had written Price that the administration would accept a conventionally powered aircraft carrier if the $1.6 billion were provided for it in the vetoed bill.
In contrast with that position taken during the House debate on the fiscal 1979 defense authorization bill, Carter administration officials are now asking that no money for either a nuclear or conventional carrier be included in the rewritten procurement bill. The administration has pomised to request money for an additional carrier next year in the fiscal 1980 defense budget.
It was generally understood both in Congress and the Pentagon that the nuclear carrier to be financed in the bill Carter vetoed would be the last of the giants. Smaller and cheaper carriers, not necessarily nuclear-powered, were to follow it.
Price reasoned in his letter yesterday that if only one more large carrier were to be built it might as well be the most capable one: the nuclear-powered Nimitz-class ship. He said that although he had "the utmost respect" for Defense Secretary Harold Brown, who joined Carter in opposing one more Nimitz, "I have failed to observe any conclusive evidence of infallibility in the Department of Defense."