A visibly irked House Armed Services Committee rewrote the vetoed defense bill yesterday to take out the nuclear aircraft carrier President Carter opposes, but refused to use $2 billion saved for other military projects the administration contends are vital.
Members all across the political spectrum complained that Carter was playing politics with the defense budget by insisting on adding money for new projects, even though such changes would probably keep the bill from being passed before the next budget year begins on Oct. 1.
Committee Chairman Melvin Price (D-Ill.) prevailed upon his colleagues to changes to a minimum to speed the bill's passage.
After a public hearing at which Defense Secretary Harold Brown pressed for $2 billion to be added to the fiscal 1979 authorization and appropriation bills, the committee voted 36 to 1 to send to the floor a new bill with only two big changes in it.
Besides deleting the Nimitz-class carrier, the committee added $209 million to enable the Navy to pay off disputed back bills on ships built by the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics and the Litton Industries shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss.
Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) voted against the bill on the ground it should have been reduced further.
With Chairman John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee already committed to following the House lead by keeping the vetoed defense bill largely intact after deleting the carrier, the stage is set for the administration to request a supplemental appropriation later this year to fund the rejected $2 billion wish list. Brown said yesterday that it is "likely" such a request will be submitted to Congress.
Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) a liberal who described himself during the committee hearing as one of the administration's strongest backers on defense issues, charged that White House and defense leaders have been "playing fast and loose" with the legislative process ever since the veto of the military bill.
"It's a big mistake," Downey warned. He said the administration is likely to run into deep trouble later on with Congress because of the politicking.
Zeroing in on the four-page list of additions Brown requested the committee to approve yesterday, Downey told Brown at the witness table: "Some of the things you have asked us to buy are just plain turkeys."
Rep. Jim Lloyd (D-Calif.), a former Navy aircraft carrier pilot who calls himself a political moderate, complained to Brown that the administration was putting the lawmakers in no-win position by sending up the wish list of military projects when there was not time to consider adding them to the vetoed bill.
"How can I vote against tanks? How can I vote against F15 fighter planes without appearing to shortchange national defense? Lloyd asked.
Yet, continued Lloyd, "this is the wrong place and the wrong time" to halt the legislative process to consider putting new items into the defense authorization bill.
After the committee hearing, Lloyd said in an interview that Brown's action in submitting a long list of military projects to the committee at the last minute amounts to "waving a red flag and playing politics with national defense.
"I'm soft on defense if I don't vote for the Pentagon's list," said Lloyd, "and I'm irresponsible if I hold up" the whole defense bill long enough to insert the requested additions.
Rep. Mendel J. Davis (D-S.C.), a conservative, told Brown that "it might be good" if he requested additions to the defense bill "directly related to the matter at hand."
Davis noted, and Brown did not dispute it, that $3 million extra the Pentagon put on its wish list for a storage site in Europe for Army equipment would have to added to the military construction bill Carter has already signed into law.
"They're playing power politics with the defense budget," Davis said in an interview last night in summarizing his dismay with the statements administration officials have been making since the veto of the defense bill.
"Brown, at the House hearing which he described as "not unfriendly," said in justifying the $2 billion in additions that "we must reassure the American public and our allies and make it clear to the Soviets that we will not falter in the competition . . . I believe we share the conclusion that we should reach a defense total of $126 billion for fiscal year 1979."
If the requested $2 billion is not added to the budget, Brown said, "that poses a risk to national defense, and Congress shares the responsiblity."
The Pentagon's wish list included an additional $39 million for 70 more M60 tanks; $35 million for the Roland anti-aircraft missile; $40 million to convert passenger liners to carry military cargo in an emergencey, and $38 million for cruise missiles.