For the first time yesterday, a Senate opponent of SALT II deliberately sought to delay action on it -- a hint of possible trouble to come as proponents seek to push the strategic arms limitation treaty through the Senate by December.
According to an authoritative source, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) offered a lone protest that prevented the Foreign Relations Committee from continuing its markup of SALT II more than two hours after the full Senate went into session. As a result, the committe had to cancel its afternoon meeting, and made almost no headway on the markup.
Today the Senate leadership has put off the floor session until an unusually late hour, 4 p.m., enabling the committee to meet both morning and afternoon, as intended yesterday.
The committee's leadership had hoped to complete action on the treaty by the end of next week, but this deading looks increasingly unreacchable, particularly if some senators adopt tacties that deliberatley slow the committee down.
In an interview yesterday, Helms said: "I just feel the need of slowing this thing down . . . I just think we ought to have plenty of time" to consider the treaty. Helms said he would not agree to a fixed time for the full Senate's debate at least until the debate was well under way and "we can see how the headcount is going."
Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has indicated a desire to get a time agreement that would limit the floor debate several weeks. Without one, there seems little prospect that the Senate can act by early December.
The significance of that date was the subject of heated discussion in the Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) complained that the committe was in "a rush to finish that has never been explained," a comment that provoked Sen. Jacob K. Javits (N.Y.) the ranking Republican.
There is a reason to move quickly, Javits said -- "the western alliance is in grave peril." If the Senate has not acted on SALT II by the time the North Atlantic Tready Organization meets in December to consider plans for modernizing allied nuclear forces in Europe, that modernization could fall by the wayside, Javits warned.
"If they make a decision against us at that time," Javits told Glenn, "you'll be mightly sorry that you didn't rush."
Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) joined this discussion, observing that he would not permit the desires of allied countries to determine the Senate's schedule. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) responded heatedly to Baker, saying it wasn't the needs of the allies but "our naked self-interest" that argues for speedy action on SALT. "Our security is at stake," Biden declared.
The linkage of Salt to this pending decision on NATO modernization, which would include the deployment of new nuclear missiles bitterly opposed by the Soviet Union, has become a key issue for SALT proponents.
The proponents argue that defeat of SALT would guarantee the collapse of the delicately balanced plan to modernize the NATO nuclear force, and perhaps an unraveling of the alliance, since the allies are counting on approval of SALT as a sign that arms control efforts will continue and eventually include the European theater.
Helms said yesterday this argument was "poppycock."
Before its meeting had to end, the committe did approve one reservation to SALT II incorporating into the treaty assurances the Soviets have given that would hold their Backfire bomber production to the current rate of 30 per year.