The nuclear freeze movement lost its first test in Congress yesterday as the Republican-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee rejected a freeze resolution on a near party-line vote of 10 to 6.
The committee instead voted out an arms reduction resolution closely paralleling the Reagan administration's position, calling for a joint effort with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear armaments through negotiations.
The votes on the non-binding sense-of-Congress resolutions strongly indicated that the nuclear freeze momentum built up in town meetings and state legislatures across the country in recent months will not carry over in Congress this year.
Freeze resolutions are still pending in the House and could be brought to another test on the Senate floor later, but the Republican unanimity displayed yesterday suggests they would not pass.
One Democrat, Edward Zorinsky (Neb.), joined the panel's nine Republicans in voting down the freeze resolution. A second Democrat, Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), did not vote. All six other Democrats voted aye.
Disgruntled Democrats described the final version constructed by Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) as ineffectual and four voted against it. "This is business-as-usual arms control," said Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), asserting that it was not forceful enough to prod the administration into negotiating an arms reduction agreement.
Percy strongly defended President Reagan's aims in the strategic arms talks set to begin June 29 and predicted the committee's resolution would have "wide support in the Senate."
The Percy resolution commends Reagan's approach and urges a U.S.-Soviet agreement providing for "sharply reduced and equal levels" of long-range nuclear missiles and warheads. The administration has said a freeze without prior reductions would lock in existing Soviet advantages.
The resolution also calls for the United States to refrain from undercutting provisions of the SALT II arms agreement so long as the Soviets show "equal restraint." That agreement was never ratified by the Senate.
A State Department official said the key provisions are consistent with Reagan's statements of moving in this year's negotiations toward lower levels of nuclear warheads while at the same time not undercutting SALT II.
A dispute over what the administration really has in mind for SALT II sparked the sharpest debate, with Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) claiming that officials have made conflicting and ambiguous statements on whether its terms would be observed in the interim before a new agreement is negotiated.
Democrats backed a resolution first introduced last March by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) calling for an immediate "mutual and verifiable freeze" on testing, production and further deployment of nuclear warheads. It is similar to several hundred resolutions adopted locally around the country since the nuclear freeze movement got under way.
The Reagan administration, faced with a spreading anti-nuclear movement and accused of stalling on arms negotiations, countered this spring with the plan to begin its own strategic arms reduction talks, called START, with the Soviets.
Cranston summed up the differences, saying, "The administration's spokesmen say they are worried about the Soviet buildup, adverse trends, and momentum. I say okay, let's halt those trends with a freeze."
But Percy contended that a freeze would leave both sides with their current weapons in place. "It would sanction each side keeping what they've got," he said. "It's better to move to negotiations, reduce the level, and then freeze there . . . at a lower level."
Glenn sought to amend the resolution to call on both the United States and the Soviet Union to begin the START talks by agreeing to abide by the SALT I and SALT II provisions. With Percy arguing that that would bog down the beginning of START, the amendment lost 8 to 6.