The House yesterday reversed itself and voted 232 to 188 to send legislation carrying out the Panama Canal treaties to the White House.
The vote gets the administration out of what could have been a sticky situation. The treaties would have taken effect Oct. 1 whether the implementing legislation was passed or not. But without the legislation the United States could not have operated and maintained the canal as it is committed to do for the next 20 years under the treaties. Administration officials were predicting trouble in Panama and possibly even a Panamanian attempt to seize the canal if the legislation did not come through.
"We no longer have the luxury of time to vent our anger," House Merchant Marine Committee Chairman John Murphy (D-N.Y.) said yesterday on the House floor. "This is a time bomb ticking away. The treaties of 1977 are the law of the land. Our word is on the line."
Murphy also said the "75th Ranger Brigade is on its way to Panama," hinting it was there to stop trouble "if we don't act responsibly today." The Pentagon said it was a routine training exercise for the brigade, however.
While House leaders felt they had the votes to turn around last week's defeat of the implementing legislation, a last-minute threat from a right-wing organization caused both Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) to make rare back-to-back speeches seeking votes for the bill.
Conservative Caucus leader Howard Phillips threatened before the vote to spend a total of a million dollars to defeat House members who voted for the implementing legislation. At his press conference O'Neill said, "They represent the greed of America. I think everything they stand for is wrong."
Last week, when the House turned down the implementing legislation by a vote of 203 to 192, it forced a reopening of a House-Senate conference which quickly made a few new concessions to House opponents of the treaties.
In general the implementing legislation sets up a commission for operation of the canal, subjects funding of the commission to annual congressional appropriations, provides for future transfers of property to Panama beyond the 55 percent of the property they will receive Monday, and provides for tolls and payments to Panama.
The concessions reiterated that the canal itself will not go to Panama until December 1999, gave Congress an opportunity to review future transfers of property, and required Panama to pay about $100 million more of the costs of implementing the treaties out of tolls.
The major concession was language added to the report on the bill saying the president could put the canal under military control if foreign combat troops deemed to be a threat to the canal were stationed in Panama. The language is intended to ward off treaty opponents' fear of a Cuban or Soviet brigade being stationed in Panama.
But these concessions, approved by the Senate Tuesday, were not the main factor in turning the House around.
Instead it was a decision by a few key Republicans to stop blocking the legislation, since the treaties are now the law of the land. One such Republican was Rep. Robert Bauman (Md.), who, while he did not vote for the bill, said on the House floor, "We need implementing legislation to protect the interests of the United States."
Though Bauman did not switch his vote, 13 Republicans who opposed the bill last week voted for it yesterday.
A dozen Democrats also switched their votes.
There were rumors that Carter's announcement of support for a congressional pay raise and his decision not to veto a $10 billion appropriations bill permitting construction of the Tellico Dam, helped bring about those switches. While Rep. Marilyn Lloyd Bouquard (D-Tenn.) voted for the Panama legislation for the first time yesterday, and even spoke for it on the floor, she denied the president's clearance of the Tellico Dam, which is in her district, was the reason. She said she had had no contact or discussions with the White House linking Tellico and Panama.
The dam had been held up because construction threatened the snail darter, an endangered species of fish. The legislation exempts the dam from the Endangered Species Act.
Area House members Joseph Fisher (D-Va.), Herb Harris (D-Va.), Gladys Spellman (D-Md.) and Michael Barnes (D-Md.), voted for the implementing legislation. Rep. Marjorie Holt (R-Md.) voted no.