An amendment to the nuclear freeze resolution that was sponsored by Rep. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) called for reducing nuclear weapons as the first objective listed in the resolution, but did not condition a freeze on prior reductions. The House defeated the amendment Wednesday.
Ignoring a last-minute appeal from President Reagan, the House yesterday defeated attempts to water down the nuclear freeze resolution, but put off a final vote on the controversial proposition until next week.
By a vote of 229 to 190, the Democratic-controlled body rolled over an amendment sponsored by Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), the so-called "build-down alternative," which called for retiring two old nuclear weapons for every new one built. That approach has been endorsed by more than 40 senators including Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.), and Levitas predicted it would be the position of an eventual House-Senate conference on the resolution.
On a slightly closer vote of 219 to 195, the House turned aside an amendment by Rep. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) that called for reducing nuclear weapons before pursuing a freeze, as proposed by the administration.
Freeze proponents said both amendments would muddy the issue and allow the United States and Soviet Union to build new, destabilizing weapons systems rather than to freeze arms at current levels and then undertake reductions.
Those favoring the amendments said the issue was as much political as substantive.
"Politics is the animating force--any stick to beat the administration with," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).
In a letter yesterday to Rep. William S. Broomfield (Mich.), ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reagan charged that "by preserving current Soviet nuclear advantages and preventing us from replacing our own aging and increasingly vulnerable weapons systems, the freeze would be a formula for permanent insecurity."
However, the White House did not lobby intensively against the resolution as it did last year, when the freeze resolution lost by two votes in the House. "We know we don't have the votes to get our amendments," said one Republican leadership aide. "It's no longer a discussion of the merits. The pro-freezers have made this into a loyalty test."
Twenty-two Republicans joined 207 Democrats to defeat Levitas.
The freeze resolution, sponsored by Rep. Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.) and more than 200 House members, calls for a fundamental change in the administration's negotiating posture for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks in Geneva.
Instead of negotiating reductions while also building more weapons, the resolution calls on the two superpowers to negotiate "an immediate, mutual and verifiable freeze." Following a freeze, they should pursue "substantial, equitable and verifiable reductions in weapons through numerical ceilings, annual percentages" or other means, it adds.
During the first day of debate last month, Zablocki, who is floor manager of the bill, was criticized widely for being unprepared to answer an onslaught of technical questions from Republican and conservative Democratic opponents.
Opponents came within six votes of passing an amendment that would have allowed the president to continue his current negotiating position of seeking weapons reductions rather than a freeze.
Yesterday, however, Zablocki and about a dozen aggressive younger Democrats came armed with thick black briefing books, and Zablocki's nine-page opening statement sought to dispel some of the contradictions raised in the debate last month.
The resolution, he said, would not "unilaterally preclude the development, modernization and production of U.S. nuclear systems, like the B1 bomber, unless and until those systems were included in a mutual and verifiable freeze agreement with the Soviet Union."
In the speaker's lobby outside the House chamber two sets of red, white and blue charts, one set up by the Pentagon and the other by the freeze group, battled each other with contradictory graphs and numbers comparing the relative strategic strength of the United States and the Soviet Union.
"People have said this is the most important debate in history," said Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R-Iowa), expressing frustration at the "hair-splitting" differences between the original resolution and the various amendments. "But we have become trapped in sophistry. It has degenerated into a political game."
Among Maryland representatives, Michael D. Barnes (D) and Steny Hoyer (D) voted against the Levitas amendment, while Beverly B. Byron (D) and Marjorie S. Holt (R) voted in favor. Virginia's Frank R. Wolf (R) and Stanford E. Parris (R) voted in favor.