Congress will take up the controversial nuclear freeze resolution after its Easter recess, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) announced yesterday, as freeze supporters prepared to mount a broad lobbying campaign following Wednesday night's setback.
Although the freeze won two test votes, the six-vote margin on one of them was narrow enough to give supporters a scare. A coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans took advantage of confusion in the debate to delay the final vote.
Democratic leaders had hoped for a quick victory on the resolution, which would call on the United States and the Soviet Union to negotiate an "immediate, mutual and verifiable freeze" on nuclear weapons. But the opportunity to embarrass President Reagan, who has fought the freeze on the grounds that it would prevent a U.S. military buildup, was stalled as Democrats floundered before a well-prepared Republican onslaught.
The 13-hour debate turned into a free-for-all as midnight approached and opponents' amendments piled up at the clerk's desk. An aggressive group of younger, conservative Republicans led by Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.), Jack Kemp (N.Y.) and Duncan Hunter (Calif.) flailed away at Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), who appeared bewildered and unable to answer pointed questions about how a nuclear freeze would work.
Members were shouting and interrupting one another, defending and impugning each others' motives and patriotism, taking offense at real or imagined insults, and all the while never failing to address one another as "the gentleman from . . . . "
"It was a disaster," Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) said yesterday. "Once the blood was in the water, it was like sharks on a feeding frenzy. Once things get out of control, it is hard to get them back in control."
Zablocki, a co-sponsor of the resolution but never a great freeze enthusiast, insisted that the measure would not bind Reagan to change his arms control policy. Republicans pointed to language in the committee report that said that it would be binding. At one point, Zablocki told opponents that a freeze would not preclude the building of the B1 bomber. Freeze advocates immediately jumped up to say that a freeze would block deployment of the B1.
After that, Zablocki sat down. Aspin, a knowledgeable member of the Armed Services Committee, took the well of the House and, gesturing grandly toward red-and-blue charts comparing U.S. and Soviet strategic forces, fended off the onslaught with the help of younger Democrats such as Stephen J. Solarz (N.Y.) and Edward J. Markey (Mass.).
"Is it a transvestite?" asked Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), ridiculing the supposed inconsistencies of the resolution. "It is a semantic mess . . . a political statement reduced to gibberish."
An amendment by Rep. Mark D. Siljander (R-Mich.) would have allowed the administration to negotiate reductions at Geneva, as it is now trying to do, rather than negotiate a freeze. That amendment failed 215 to 209, which sent freeze advocates scurrying to their boiler room in a corner of the Capitol to compile a list of "defectors."
Another amendment, sponsored by Rep. Samuel D. Stratton (D-N.Y.), which would have allowed "modernization of the nuclear deterrent," permitting Reagan's $1.7 trillion military buildup over the next five years to proceed, was fought off by freeze advocates 226 to 195.
As the hour grew late and members--some of whom wore tuxedoes, assuming they'd be through in time to attend St. Patrick's parties--grew impatient, Zablocki tried repeatedly to limit debate. By 209 to 199, the House refused to cut off discussion of a dozen amendments pending.
These substitute amendments are expected to be taken up after the Easter recess. They include a measure to endorse Reagan's arms control negotiations, by calling for a reduction in weapons before a freeze; a proposal to eliminate two older warheads for each new warhead deployed, and an amendment requiring on-site verification of nuclear weapons sites before a freeze.
Despite the delay of the final vote, freeze opponents called it "an uphill battle," and O'Neill predicted the resolution would win by 60 to 100 votes.