In the most significant test of congressional sentiment on the issue in 11 years, a Senate subcommittee yesterday voted 12 to 1 to reduce the American military presence in Europe by 23,000 troops.
Hard-pressed for ways to cut Pentagon spending, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense took its action on grounds it is high time for other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries to carry more of the alliance's defense burden.
Some subcommittee members also complained about European refusal to join the United States in reprisals against the Soviet Union for the imposition of martial law in Poland; the Europeans are insisting on completion of the planned natural gas pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe that the Reagan White House wants to block.
Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), the subcommittee's ranking minority member, warned that reduction of U.S. troop strength in Europe would not only upset NATO partners but weaken President Reagan's hand in negotiating arms reductions with the Soviets.
But subcommittee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who led the fight for reduction, said: "We've been increasing our troop strength to make up for them decreasing theirs. I don't believe in this constant escalation of troop strength."
The subcommittee vote was at least as important for symbolic reasons as for substantive. It may be reversed later in the legislative process. But Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), one of the several certified subcommittee conservatives who sided with Stevens, said he wanted to send the Europeans a message, which was that "we're a little bit tired of being your lackey." He said that Europe's continuing business dealings with the Soviets amount to "aiding and abetting the enemy with high-tech technology."
The subcommittee voted to freeze American troop strength in Europe at the 1980 level of 331,705. This compares with 355,045 American service men and women on the ground in Europe as of June 30. The Defense Department, with which the subcommittee has been feuding over how to cut the budget, had wanted an increase in troop strength.
Stevens and some others in Congress have been urging reductions in U.S. troop strength in Europe all year; yesterday was the first vote on the issue. Though the subcommittee did not dictate what units the Pentagon should take out of Europe, it did insist that the Army deactivate the 4th Brigade of the 4th Infantry based at Wiesbaden, West Germany, a force of about 4,000 troops.
The proposed troop reduction was part of a subcommittee effort to keep next year's military spending $8.7 billion under what Reagan requested in February. Subcommittee aides said the reduction of troop strength would save $42 million next fiscal year.
The subcommittee's marching orders to the Pentagon are expressed in so-called end strengths: the number of men and women that can be in uniform in each service at the end of the fiscal year. Its amendment would reduce the fiscal 1983 end strength in Europe, which the subcommittee said would be 350,600 under the original Reagan budget, to the fiscal 1980 level of 331,705. The Pentagon says its budget would produce an even higher fiscal 1983 end strength, 357,939, which would make yesterday's cut even larger.
In his one-man effort to derail the troop reduction, Stennis told the subcommittee, "In this situation it's our neck that is in the noose." He said Reagan in negotiating with the Soviets "wants all flags flying." He added that this is a particularly bad time to weaken the American military commitment in Europe since "the West German government is hopping around."
The last significant test of congressional sentiment on the troop strength issue came on Nov. 23, 1971, when the Senate voted 54 to 39 against a resolution sponsored by Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) to reduce the force to 250,000. Earlier that year, on May 19, the Senate voted 61 to 36 against a Mansfield resolution to halve the American troop commitment in Europe to 150,000.
Republican senators who joined Stevens and Garn yesterday in voting for returning to the 1980 troop levels in Europe were Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (Conn.), Harrison Schmitt (N.M.), Robert W. Kasten Jr. (Wis.), Alfonse M. D'Amato (N.Y.) and Warren Rudman (N.H.). Democrats who voted with them were William Proxmire (Wis.), Daniel K. Inouye (Hawaii), Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.), J. Bennett Johnston (La.) and Walter D. Huddleston (Ky.).
In other subcommittee actions yesterday in marking up a bill granting $232 billion in budget authority to the Pentagon in fiscal 1983, the members voted 11 to 5 against a Hollings amendment to kill the B1 bomber and 10 to 6 for a Stevens amendment to reduce money for the Lockheed C5B transport plane from $800 million to $600 million and earmark the remaining $200 million to complete the development work on the competing McDonnell Douglas C17 cargo carrier.