The House, in the first big test of congressional sentiment on the revived issue of the draft, voted 252 to 163 yesterday against requiring 18-year-old males to register with their local draft boards.
The vote came on a maneuver by Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.), a champion of registration, who offered an amendment that he hoped would put the House on record as favoring the requirement.
The House then voted, 259 to 155, for an amendment by Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) to delete the registration provision, which had been placed by the Armed Services Committee in the Pentagon's fiscal 1980 procurement bill.
However, the bill would still require the president to submit a report in January on the needs and methods for draft registration.
The Committee Against Registration and the Draft, which lobbied against the provision, called yesterday's votes "a tremendous victory for the civil and human rights of young people."
The often emotional debate swirled around the current state of the U.S. military and the best ways to correct its shortcomings. It also evoked memories of Vietnam.
Rep. Robin L. Beard (R-Tenn.), in backing compulsory registration, said the all-volunteer military is falling apart. He charged the Pentagon with "one of the biggest coverups" to hide this reality from the Congress and the public.
Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio), in opposing registration, said forcing it on today's young people would bring back the disillusionment and tragedy of the Vietnam era.
"We don't need to go through that again," said Sieberling, reminding his colleagues that he represents Kent, Ohio, where National Guardsmen killed four Vietnam war protesters nine years ago.
In an action that was attacked at the time as a bad mix, the House Armed Services Committee this spring added the draft registration to a bill authorizing $42 billion for aircraft, missiles, ships and military research.
Under the provision stripped out of that Pentagon bill yesterday, only males, not females, who became 18 on or after Jan. 1, 1981, would have to register with their draft boards. This would have imposed the requirement after the November 1980 election.
Before draft registration was defeated yesterday, the House rejected on a 268-to-144 vote on amendment offered by Beard to have House and Senate leaders appoint a 24-member commission to assess the combat readiness of the military and recommend ways to improve it, possibly including registration.
The debate dramatized how different generations of lawmakers look upon compulsory registration and the draft.
"We don't need any more studies," complained Montgomery, a World War II veteran and former brigadier general in the Mississippi National Guard who favors both registration and a limited draft to fill vacancies in the reserves.
Without registration, Mongtomery warned, the Pentagon may have to implement its contingency plan to call up Vietnam war veterans as replacements. This would be "certainly unfair."
"It's very painful for me to listen to the arguments" against preparing for war by resuming registration, said Rep. Don Bailey (D-Pa.), a 34-year-old former Army company commander decorated for heroism in Vietnam.
"It's silly," he told his house colleagues, to compare registration with "slavery." He added that it's "just not true" to assert that registration "is going to lead to the draft."
"I was in college in the 1960s and participated in a lot of protests" against the Vietnam war, said 30-year-old Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N. Y.).
"Registration will inevitable lead to the draft," Downey said. And this will keep the Armed Services from confronting the fact that "they are preparing to fight the wrong war" and have not found a way to make the reserves attractive to today's young people.
Agreeing that there are problems in both the active duty and reserve forces, Downey said forcing more people into these units is not the way to solve the problems.