The House yesterday turned down by a 203-to-192 vote legislation implementing the Panama Canal treaties.
The action came just 10 days before the treaties, turning the canal over to Panama over the course of the next 20 years, were to take effect. The vote seriously embarrasses the administration and may cause repercussions in Panama if the legislation isn't passed by the Oct. 1 effective date.
A White House spokesman in an official statement said President Carter "deeply regrets" the House action and "will make every effort" to obtain passage of the bill.
Merchant Marine Committee Chairman John Murphy (D-N.Y.), floor leader for the bill, said the House would immediately ask for a new conference with the Senate to make adjustments in legislation. The Senate, which ratified the treaties in 1977, passed the implementing legislation earlier yesterday, 60 to 35.
Murphy blamed the House's rejection of the conference report on "strong feelings about what is happening in the Caribbean." He cited the Soviet brigade stationed in Cuba, the revolution in Nicaragua, the shaky condition of the government in El Salvador and the denunciation of the United States at a recent meeting of nonaligned nations in Cuba.
"They won't tolerate our weak foreign policy, and they're voting against the advisability of adopting the treaties of 1977," Murphy said.
Murphy said he "wouldn't be surprised " if Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos tried to move in and take over control of the canal, if the treaties aren't implemented by Oct. 1. The treaties would close out the present canal company. This would leave the United States without a mechanism for operating the canal, if implementing legislation isn't passed by Oct. 1.
The implementing legislation would set up a new commission for operating the canal, provide for a transfer of about 55 percent of the property to Panama and set up a system of tolls and payments.
The White House spokesman, in responding to the House veto, said, "It is inconceivable that the Congress would allow the Panama Canal to be closed even for a short time."
Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.), who led the Republican attack against the legislation, said the Senate and administration would have to back down on two major points to satisfy treaty opponents. The conference report provided that Panama pay only those costs of the treaties which relate to operation and maintenance of the canal. Bauman wants Panama to pay for all costs, including moving U.S. bases, schools, and housing. Bauman claimed that would save U.S. taxpayers about $1 billion. He also wants future transfers of the remaining 45 percent of the property, which is subject to congressional approval.
The House which had passed a much tougher implementing bill than the Senate, had won most of its points in the conference with the Senate. It had won its main demand, that the new agency to run the canal be a commission rather than an independent corporation, and that the commission funding be subject to annual congressional authorizations and appropriations.
Murphy insisted the terms of the bill were not the overriding factor, as much as congressional unhappiness with U.S. policy toward Latin America. His contention was borne out somewhat by the fact that in the Senate an amendment by Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.), which would have prevented further transfer of property and payments to Panama if Soviet troops were in Panama, lost by only 50 to 45.
The administration knew it was in trouble in the House and pulled out all stops, with President Carter personally calling members on a list of about 30 to 40 wavering votes.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) feverishly worked the floor, begging such members as Rep. Carl Perkins (D-Ky.) for their votes. Perkins refused and voted against the conference report, as did 77 other Democrats. It was supported by 173 Democrats.
Of the Republicans 125 voted against the measure while 19 voted for it. One of the supporters, Rep. Ed. Derwinski (R-Ill.), said "The expectations of the people of Panama and Latin America are that this treaty is going to take effect. If headlines now scream 'U.S. Congress Stops Treaty' it would be a diplomatic disaster and the consequences could be catastrophic for our people operating the canal and our image in Latin America."
But Rep. George Hansen (R-Idaho) accused Panamanian leaders of joining Marxists and Castro to foment revolution in Central America. "The president is faced with what to do about Soviet troops in Cuba. Wouldn't a first step be to keep the Panama Canal?"
All area House members, Democratic Reps. Michael Barnes and Gladys Spellman of Maryland and Joseph Fisher and Herbert Harris of Virginia, voted for the conference report.