The House last night passed a resolution calling for a mutual freeze on nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union, but only after amending the measure in such a way that both opponents and supporters claimed some form of victory.
The 278-to-149 final vote followed more than 53 hours of contentious and at times arcane deliberations on the measure over the last two months. Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) described it as "one of the great debates in the history of the House."
The freeze resolution generally is regarded as a symbolic expression against the nuclear arms race. How binding it would be on U.S. arms negotiators is disputed.
The resolution now goes to the Republican-controlled Senate, where its fate is uncertain. President Reagan has said he will veto the measure if it reaches his desk.
The freeze debate began in March, with the House Democratic leadership, bolstered by 26 fresh troops this session, predicting a swift and resounding victory, but ended with them scrambling to place the best possible interpretation on what appeared to be a seriously watered-down result. House Republicans and conservative Democrats were able to claim a key victory three hours before the final vote when they pushed through an amendment that they said diluted the resolution's impact by setting a time limit on a freeze unless arms reductions are achieved within a specified period of time.
"We accomplished everything that we could accomplish through that amendment and some 30 others," said Rep. William S. Broomfield (R-Mich.), floor leader for the freeze opponents. "I was extremely pleased. They freeze supporters can claim anything they want, but the fact is we weren't rolled. We won a clear victory."
A few freeze proponents agreed with that assessment. "That gutted the resolution," said Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) minutes after the amendment had passed. But the floor leaders of the resolution argued otherwise.
"Their amendments were nuisances at best," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). "They knew they couldn't beat us on final passage, so they decided to take one amendment that didn't mean much of anything and make it the symbolic victory they could take home with them. Of the major points we wanted in the resolution, we didn't lose one."
"So they can say the freeze is not forever," added Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.). "I don't have any trouble with that. We still kept the point that the freeze should come first, then the reductions in weapons. That has been what all the great argument has been about. They kept pushing for a freeze and reductions or a freeze or reductions. We got a freeze, then reductions. We did not lose the sequence we wanted, the major stuff."
Such were the semantic points on which this great debate was based and finally resolved.
"Make no mistake about it, the pure freeze has lost," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.). "Let history judge who's been rolled."
Reagan, in opposing the freeze resolution, has argued that the United States trails the Soviet Union in the arms race and that a freeze, if not accompanied by weapons reductions such as he has proposed at the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in Geneva, would lock this country into an inferior position.
The key amendment, sponsored by Rep. Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), one of 66 Democrats who voted for it, in effect says that the freeze would end if U.S. arms negotiators were unable to achieve weapons reductions within "a reasonable, specified period of time."
Levitas said his amendment passed because "it made sense . . . and it caught freeze proponents by surprise."
As soon as the amendment passed, the Republican side of the aisle erupted in cheers. O'Neill and the bill's floor leaders retreated to a back room, where they worked out an agreement with Broomfield and the measure's key opponents to drop all other pending amendments and move toward a final vote. Until then, it had been expected that there would be several more hours of debate on dozens of additional amendments, with the final vote not coming until this afternoon.
One of the major factors in yesterday's deliberations was the new arms-control proposal announced Tuesday by Soviet leader Yuri V. Andropov, who for the first time offered to count warheads as well as missiles in determining a balance between Soviet and NATO nuclear forces.
"The Soviets have made a potentially significant new offer not to freeze but to reduce nuclear weapons," said Broomfield, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Let's give President Reagan and Chairman Andropov a chance. Let's not muddy the waters by passing a freeze resolution that has been overtaken by events."
Freeze proponents, on the other hand, said the House should take stock of the action that same day by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which adopted a pastoral letter calling for a "halt" to the testing, production and deployment of new nuclear weapons.
"What happend at the Catholic bishops' session is a reflection of grass-roots support at the parish level," Markey said. "That is very much identical to the grass-roots movement nationwide in support of the freeze."
Foreign Affairs Chairman Clement J. Zablocki (D-Wis.), the freeze resolution's chief sponsor, said he was not disheartened by the fact that more than 30 amendments had been added to the measure since his committee passed it by an overwhelming vote two months ago. "It still retains as its first priority a freeze," he said.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), one of the measure's leading opponents, said the debate, which many legislators claimed was the longest in the history of the House, was beneficial.
"The prolonged debate helped clarify how incoherent the resolution really was," Hyde said. "And the entire country's awareness of arms-control negotiations has been heightened, and I think the administration's attention has been gotten--and that's all for the good."
Over the course of the House debate, the length of the resolution nearly doubled, from 750 to almost 1,500 words. Most of the adopted changes were offered by freeze supporters attempting to clarify the resolution. Last night, however, opponents were claiming that they had won on eight major amendments, including the final one by Levitas.
In the final tally, 218 Democrats and 60 Republicans voted for the resolution, with 43 Democrats and 106 Republicans voting against it.
Two Virginia Democrats, Frederick C. Boucher and James R. Olin, voted for the freeze, while the other eight Virginians in the House voted against it. In the Maryland delegation, Republican Marjorie S. Holt and Democrats Beverly B. Byron and Roy Dyson voted against the measure, while Democrats Steny H. Hoyer, Michael D. Barnes, Clarence D. Long, Barbara A. Mikulski and Parren J. Mitchell voted for it.