House Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.) hinted yesterday that he might shift gears and vote against $2.5 billion in procurement funds for the MX missile this week.
"I'm just reexamining my priorities," Wright told reporters when asked if he is thinking of changing his position. He had voted in May to release $625 million for basing studies and flight tests.
Release of those funds, which Congress delayed last winter because of skepticism that the big missile would be deployed effectively, was a resounding victory for President Reagan. It also led to widespread complaints from junior House Democrats that their leaders had given in too easily.
The procurement issue is expected to come to a House vote Wednesday as part of the on-again, off-again debate over the defense authorization bill. The Senate, with no end in sight, continued its struggle with the same controversy yesterday.
Wright said he has made no commitment to either side on the issue. He professed "a countervailing sense of duty," saying he is torn between his belief in bipartisan foreign policy and a strong defense and his alarm about the Reagan administration's "badly skewed" spending policies.
Over the last two years, Wright said, those policies have "systematically eroded our revenue balance, ravaged the civil activities of our government" and produced "an unprecedented spending spree for the military."
"At some point, somebody has got to call a stop," he said.
Asked about rumors that the upshot might be a House vote to delay procurement and wait for results from arms control talks at Geneva, he said, "There's a possibility of that."
MX critics in the House claimed to be optimistic about striking MX procurement funds from the bill. The first test is expected to come on an amendment by Reps. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) and Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.) of the House Armed Services Committee.
Their plan would eliminate the proposed $2.5 billion procurement authorization but keep $1.98 billion for MX research and development, including more flight testing, and another $250 million for research and development of a small, mobile intercontinental ballistic missile called Midgetman.
Arguing that the research and development money would preserve the MX program as an arms control "bargaining chip," Bennett and Mavroules contended in a "Dear Colleague" letter that "the most prudent check on MX is not opening the production line."
"Already there are reports that the Air Force is considering MX procurement well beyond the 100 missiles recommended by the Scowcroft commission," the letter continued. "And, while it is astonishing to believe, there are elements in the Air Force and industry now planning a revised 'dense pack' basing mode for future MX missiles."
The first MXs off the production line would go into existing Minuteman silos with special modifications. Speaking for the plan, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger told reporters yesterday that the United States must begin building the MX if it hopes to achieve arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.
As for arms control, Weinberger said the administration's "commitment is total and complete, and the flexibility has been demonstrated two or three times."
One House Democratic strategist, saying he thinks that the MX will be approved narrowly, said he also senses a growing mood in the House to "say 'no' to the president with some regularity, just to keep his attention."
He suggested that members last winter felt they might have "been closing the door too much on the president's options" by withholding MX money but then felt in May that they may have given him too much leeway again.
In the Senate, MX advocates remained largely silent yesterday while Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) continued his campaign to scuttle procurement and research and development funds for fiscal 1984. The day's main speech was by Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) who said the MX may be commonly known as the acronymn for "Missile Experimental" but "in my book it stands for 'Mindless Xenophobia.' "
Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said that, before the end of the week, he may file a petition to cut off debate and warned of possible further night sessions. Earlier, he had said he understood that, even if cloture is invoked, there might be "a flurry of amendments" to prolong the controversy.
Asked if he is frustrated by the continuing debate, Baker said, "I am frustrated every day in every way."