The House Foreign Affairs Committee provided the first congressional victory for the nuclear freeze movement yesterday as seven Republican members ignored a last-minute administration plea and voted to recommend freezing U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons at current levels.
The unexpected shift of Republican votes removed the partisan label from what had been primarily a Democratic issue and set the stage for a close battle when the freeze resolution reaches the House floor.
In the key 26-to-11 vote, 19 of the 21 Democrats voted for the freeze and Republicans split seven in favor and nine against.
Republicans said later that the administration, which opposes the freeze idea, made a last-minute bid to hold them in line. Rep. Arlen Erdahl (R-Minn.) said a State Department official called shortly before the vote to tell him President Reagan was "very concerned" about the outcome because endorsement of the freeze would "weaken" the U.S. position in the strategic arms negotiations with the Soviets. Erdahl voted for the freeze.
The resolution would not bind the administration, but advocates have pictured it as the main force propelling Reagan into the arms talks. The U.S. position in those talks is to negotiate a reduction of nuclear forces on both sides. Freeze proponents claim the administration's strategy is to build up the U.S. arsenal with the MX missile and other weapons during the negotiations.
The freeze resolution has 176 House sponsors, assuring a close vote on the floor, but opponents have almost as many names on a different resolution supported by the administration. In the Senate, the freeze already has been rejected on a near party-line vote in the Foreign Relations Committee but proponents plan a floor fight.
Yesterday's vote was the first success for the movement on the national political stage, although a number of state legislatures and localities have endorsed it. To some extent, it reflected pressures brought in many congressional districts this election year by the freeze advocates.
The resolution calls on the two superpowers to strive for a "mutual and verifiable freeze on the testing, production and further deployment of nuclear warheads, missiles and other delivery systems." After that, they should pursue a goal of reducing nuclear force levels, it says.
Republican critics contended a freeze would lock the United States into nuclear inferiority. "Nuclear weapons are our great equalizer with the Soviet Union," asserted Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Calif.) claimed a freeze would perpetuate the current level of nuclear arms and force the United States into a massive build-up of conventional forces.
But other Republicans argued for bipartisan support of the resolution introduced by Rep. Jonathan B. Bingham (D-N.Y.) and disputed claims that American forces are now inferior. Erdahl compared the current balance to a face-off in which one person holds a 12-gauge shotgun to the head of one holding a 20-gauge shotgun. "We have an awesome capacity for overkill," he said.
No Democrat spoke against it. "Unless we end the arms race it will end us," said Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.). He said the major question is whether a Soviet superiority would be locked in place and asserted that most evidence shows the two powers in rough parity. "We have an assured second-strike capacity against them and they have the same thing against us," he added.
The final vote on the measure was 26 to 4. That vote had been delayed all afternoon as Rep. Edward J. Derwinski (R-Ill.) invoked a rarely used rule that prohibits committee meetings when the House is operating under its five-minute rule.
A Republican substitute for the freeze was offered by Rep. Joel Pritchard (R-Wash.) but it failed on a voice vote. It would have urged a freeze only on what Pritchard called "counterforce" weapons, which an aide said applied to land-based intercontinental missiles, and the MX and Trident II missiles.
Pritchard claimed his version was the only one having a chance of passing both houses.
In addition to Erdahl, the Republicans voting for Bingham's amendment were Reps. Paul Findley (Ill.), William F. Goodling (Pa.), Millicent Fenwick (N.J.), Jim Leach (Iowa), Toby Roth (Wis.) and John LeBoutillier (N.Y.).