The Republicans are trying to turn the debate on the nuclear freeze into the legislative equivalent of a dance marathon.
Hour after hour, tirelessly, even gleefully, they trot out amendments to dilute or gut the only visible means of arms control support on the scene.
Last July, pollster Louis Harris said that "an urgent, dedicated hunger for peace . . . has literally overtaken our people."
The freeze still has the support of 80 percent of the country.
The Republicans don't really want to vote against a foreign policy initiative that is so popular; on the other hand, they don't want to vote for it, because it is really an expression of no confidence in President Reagan's disarmament policies.
The Democrats are still shuffling their feet, as required by marathon rules. Some proponents worry that weariness will overtake them, and that in an unwary or exhausted moment they will accept one of the "compromise" amendments that flow so freely from the other side, and which say in effect that a freeze is fine but that reductions, as proposed by Reagan at the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, which are at a standstill, are better.
Today the dancers take to the floor again, for the fifth legislative day of debate. For some reason, the speaker of the House, who has the power and favors the freeze, is unwilling to make a real endurance contest of the struggle and keep the members through the night to stop the arms race.
On four previous occasions, they have always had something else to do. March 16 was the day before St. Patrick's Day, which is of grave moment to many. A motion to limit debate lost, and they broke for home.
On April 13, half the Democrats had to take off early the next morning for the funeral of Rep. Phillip Burton of California. On April 20, they had adjourn because they came smack up against the need to attend the Democratic Congressional Dinner.
They resumed on April 21, but that was a Thursday and they had to split because, for heaven's sake, you wouldn't want them spending Friday, a sacred day, to reduce the threat of a nuclear holocaust.
The Republicans deny they are stalling. They merely wish to "clarify" what they regard as the "ambiguities" of House Resolution 13, which if left unchallenged, they aver passionately, would lead to "unilateral disarmament" and, as Reagan says, locking the United States into "inferiority."
The Democrats realize unhappily that the impatience and ennui being built up can work against them. Some have a nervous feeling that the floor manager of the bill, Rep. Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who is no zealot for the freeze, might, in the interests of a big vote, be lured into accepting some fuzzy language that would make for the resounding anti-climax the Republicans are seeking.
So far, the Democrats have been able to beat back, although often by hairbreadth margins, every effort to incorporate into the resolution--which calls for a mutual, verifiable freeze on the testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons"--any expression of what Rep. James G. Martin (R-N.C.) calls "the equivalent priority for reductions."
Frazzled freezers say they would still have the votes if they could ever get to the roll call. They had not realized they had walked into a Republican trap when they applied for an "open" rule, which means unlimited amendments.
Since then, they have regretted their largess and have negotiated a five-minutes-for-each-side limitation on debate. But at least 30 amendments are already printed in the Record, which means they can be called up. Those will consume most of Thursday and take them into Friday, when, as is well known, they might as well be forbidden by law from voting on anything.
Republicans are polishing amendments to the "whereas"--the preamble--section of the resolution that are not subject to debate cutoff. One, offered by anti-freeze militant Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), makes sure that the resolution, if passed, would not have the force of law. The Republican all-purpose substitute, the work of Rep. William S. Broomfield (R-Mich.) brings back the reduction alternative, and can be argued for hours.
If they are once again confounded--and they expect to be--freeze advocates will seek a "modified, closed" rule, which would limit amendments to a dozen or so.
The president isn't pressuring the Republicans to play games with disarmament. It's their own idea to fight every syllable of the freeze resolution.
All they've had from him lately was a throwaway line, delivered with a grin: "Honest, I'm for arms control."
It seems to be enough for them. The Republicans must think it will be enough for the voters, too.