President Carter won a big victory yesterday when the House voted 206 to 191 to uphold his veto of a $37 billion defense authorization bill.
Those attempting to override the veto failed even to win a majority of the House and fell 74 votes short of the required two-thirds.
Carter said he vetoed the bill because it included a $2 billion nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier he did not want and because Congress had cut other items be considered vital to the national defense. [Carter is planning a "string of vetoes" as part of his new anti-inflation program, administration officials say. Details Page F1.]
Immediately after the House vote, Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, began moving to a new bill through Congress identical to the one passed either except that it deletes the carrier.
"The real choice we have to follow this simple approach rather than attempt to rewrite this entire, massive bill which may take months," Stennis said in urging his colleagues to speed the bill back to the president.
Stennis, who was furious with Carter for vetoing the bill in the first place and took it as a personal affront, said that even though he was "disappointed" that the override failed, "We must now move forward with providing for the common defense."
His committee intends to hold a hearing early next week to lear from Defense Secretary Harold Brown what other changes, if any, the administration wants in the fiscal 1979 revised authorization bill.
Carter from Camp David and Brown from the Pentagon issued statements evidently designed to repair the rift the veto opened between the White House and defense leaders in Congress.
Carter said he was pleased with the House veto and was looking forward to working "closely and cooperatively with the Congress in enacting a new bill . . ."
Brown hailed Stennis, Rep. Melvin Price (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. George H. Mahon (D-Texas.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, as "deficated and patriotic Americans."
The defense secretary faces a rough time at the upcoming hearings from those lawmakers, who contended the president's veto message impugned their motives in adding the nuclear carrier to the controversial bill.
Brown said the issue in the defense debate "was not whether to have a strong defense" but the best way to spend the $2 billion and structure the Navy.
Price, who led the House effort to override, was reportedly astonished he did not get more than 191 votes on the resolution to override Carter's veto of Aug. 17.
Administration lobbying and the desire of several members to go along with Carter on this veto because they will have to oppose him later on gut issues like the natural gas and public works bills were among the explanations offered last night.
"There's a feeling we're beating up on the president an awful lot," said Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has repeatedly attempted to sink the nuclear carrier and yesterday voted against the override.
"A lot of guys up here figured it was time to lay off him a little bit, especially since they're going to have to vote against him on natural gas, and public works which hit closer to home" than the question of whether the Navy should have another nuclear carrier or not.
Mahon, during the floor debate yesterday, called on his colleagues to close ranks behind the president.
"I would hate to see this house repudiate the president at a time when he needs strength in his quest for peace in the Middle East," Mahon said.
"Whether we build another nuclear carrier that would be ready in seven or eight years is not all that vital," he continued. "If war comes with the Soviet Union, it won't make any difference whether we have 12 or 13 carriers in our fleet."
Price, in urging an override of the veto, portrayed the issue as the right of Congress to act as an equal partner with the executive branch in making national defense policy. "The administration has simply failed to recognize the place of Congress" in this endeavor, he complained.
House Republican Leader John L. Rhodes of Arizona, in supporting the override, said Carter's deletion of the carrier would "cause our armed forces to be less strong than they should be."
Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) called the Nimitz-class carrier authorized in the bill "a $2 billion turkey. It's not going to save the world from communism."
The House Armed Services Committee is expected to start its rewrite of the bill new week, with Rep. Samuel S. Stratton (D-N.Y.) among those unwilling to settle for the same bill minus the carrier.
In peril once the House committee starts its rewrite is the package of Senate amendments designed to push the Navy into the age of small carriers and V/STOL (vertical and short take-off and landing) aircraft, which could operate from the carriers. Seed money was included in the vetoed bill for these "mini" carriers and V/STOL planes.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who sponsored those amendments, last night was trying to devise a strategy to save them. One idea is to add a large, conventionally-powered carrier to the vetoed bill in exchange for keeping the "mini" carrier package intact.
The Carter administration also has drawn up a "wish list" of projects to be financed by the $2 billion originally earmarked for the nuclear carrier. The president has promised to include a large, conventionally powered carrier in the fiscal 1980 defense budget he will send to Congress in January.