Rejecting last-minute appeals by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and White House security adviser William P. Clark, the House yesterday voted to delete funds for the production of nerve gas for chemical warfare.
The 232-to-181 vote, on an amendment by Rep. Ed Bethune (R-Ark.), opens the way for a confrontation in conference with the Senate which authorized nerve gas funds in May. The issue has major foreign policy, weapons control, and national security implications.
The prospect of the United States storing a new generation of chemical weapons for use in Europe has roused political opposition in West Germany and other NATO countries.
However, the Reagan administration argues that the United States needs a modern nerve gas program to deter any use by the Soviets of their extensive chemical arsenal, which they and their allies allegedly have used in Afganistan and Southeast Asia.
The House vote stripped $54 million for the production of nerve gas bombs and shells from the administration request for a total of $705 million for chemical warfare for fiscal year '83. The rest of the authorization is is for protective suits, decontamination devices and disposal of existing chemical weapons.
However if the nerve gas money is reinstated in the House-Senate conference, it would be the first time the United States has manufactured chemical weapons in the 13 years since President Nixon unilaterally banned the production of biological and chemical weapons.
President Reagan wants to spend $6 billion on the nerve gas program over the next five years, including $4 billion for protective measures such as special uniforms, and $2 billion to replace the current chemical arms stockpile with modern binary nerve gas weapons.
Binary weapons are made with two chemicals, harmless when stored separately, but which combine into poisonous gas when fired in bombs or artillery shells. Proponents argue that binary arms can be stored and transported more safely that the ready mixed type now in U.S. stockpiles. However, Bethune, a second-term Arkansas conservative who led the opposition, argued that "poison gases kill and maim more civilians than soldiers. . . . The Soviet Union is not only producing chemical weapons, it is using them. . . . We don't want to be partners in crime."
Bethune's amendment to the defense authorization bill was adopted as a substitute to an amendment by Rep. Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), Foreign Affairs committee chairman. Zablocki's amendment would have struck the $54 million in procurement money for the 155mm binary chemical shell and the Bigeye bomb.
The Bethune substitute not only struck the $54 million but specifically banned using any other funds, such as research and development, on the production of binary chemical munitions. It came after five hours of debate and furious parliamentary maneuvering by Armed Services Committee members in concert with the administration.
James A. Courter (R-N.J.), a committee member, had introduced an earlier substitute to the Zablocki amendment which would have directed the military to destroy an existing chemical weapon for each new binary arm produced.
Bethune denounced the Courter substitute as "a smokescreen," noting that the military had intended to destroy certain outdated chemical weapons anyway. However, two last-minute letters from Weinberger and Clark, read on the floor by Armed Services Committee Chairman Melvin Price (D-Ill.), praised the Courter amendment, asserting that it would deter the Soviets from using chemical weapons while the United States works toward a verifiable international ban.
The United States and the Soviet Union began negotiations in 1976 on a treaty to limit the development and use of chemical weapons, but the Reagan administration broke off the talks, declaring that the Soviets refused to accept comprehensive on-site verifications.
In 1980 Congress approved $3.2 million for construction of a facility in Pine Bluff, Ark., to produce binary nerve gas. The Reagan administration won an additional $20 million for the project.
However, the funds were only for plant construction, not for the manufacture of the weapons. A vote on the 1983 Military Construction budget, which includes more funds for chemical weapons facilities, is expected to come up within two weeks.
In the Maryland delegation, Democrat Steny Hoyer voted in favor of the Bethune amendment ban, while Republican Marjorie S. Holt voted against it and Democrat Michael D. Barnes did not vote. The entire Virginia delegation voted against the weapons ban, except for Republican Stanford E. (Stan) Parris.
John Isaacs, legislative director of the Council for a Livable World, an arms control group, noting how rare it is for the House to go against the president and the Armed Services Committee on a major weapon system, said, "Together with the close vote on the MX, it indicates that the nuclear freeze movement is bringing about significant changes in the House of Representatives."
An amendment by Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) to strike $4 billion in funds for the B1 bomber failed, 257 to 142. B1 foes say the bomber will be outdated by the time it is built, and that it would better to wait for development of the more advanced Stealth technology. The Virginia delegation voted against the B1 cut, as did Hoyer and Holt. Barnes did not vote. A second Dellums amendment to cut $6.8 billion in funds for the CVN nuclear aircraft carrier failed, 303 to 83.