Supporters of the MX missile seized the offensive in Congress yesterday as President Reagan lobbied wavering House members and Republican leaders moved to choke off Senate debate on the issue.
Crediting the White House with running a "beautifully orchestrated" lobbying effort, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said MX foes trail by about 10 votes as the House prepares to vote today on production funds for the new intercontinental ballistic missile.
While the House vote margin "has closed up considerably" since MX flight testing was approved, 239 to 186, in May, O'Neill said he does not know whether enough votes can be switched by today to defeat the MX production money.
Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), a leader of the pro-MX forces, said he could not predict the vote. "It's closer than hell," he said.
The last-minute lobbying flurry included letters from Reagan and, late yesterday, from the chairman of his Commission on Strategic Forces, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft. Scowcroft said "progress is demonstrably occurring" in arms control talks with the Soviets and warned that "unilateral cancellation" of the MX program would abort that progress.
Reagan said in his letter that the MX is a "lever that is working . . . to keep the Soviets moving at the negotiation tables . . . . In terms of speaking with one bipartisan voice, of standing up for U.S. vital interests and of strengthening America's agenda for peace, this vote is of special significance."
Rep. Ronald Coleman (D-Tex.), who voted for the MX in May, said the president called him and argued that procurement funds would help the United States reach an arms control agreement with the Soviets.
"I just don't happen to believe we can afford this kind of expenditure," Coleman later told reporters.
There was also lobbying from MX foes, including a letter from 27 groups opposed to the MX. They asked Rep. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), a leading liberal who voted for the missile in May, to reconsider.
Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) filed the cloture petition to limit debate on the $200 billion defense authorization bill, which includes $4.6 billion for the MX. "I am really getting tired of this bill," he said.
Even before Baker filed the cloture petition, Armed Services Committee Chairman John G. Tower (R-Tex.) moved for a second time to bring the MX issue to a head by proposing an amendment to endorse findings of the presidential commission that recommended a go-ahead for the missile.
An earlier attempt by Tower to get a test vote fizzled, and anti-missile forces appeared prepared last night to prevent it again, contending that a full-scale MX debate has not occurred.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), a presidential candidate arguing sporadically against the MX for more than a week, complained that the MX fight has been portrayed as more of a "political taffy pull" than the serious debate he says he wants. "It has been regrettable there has been no real debate . . . no real engagement," he said.
To invoke cloture, Baker needs 60 votes, one more than pro-MX forces had in May. Cloture would still allow as many as 100 hours of debate and unlimited amendments.
Baker had been reluctant to seek cloture for several reasons, including reports that anti-MX senators may have 150 amendments ready if cloture is invoked. Aides said Baker decided to go ahead when it appeared that the House vote was so shaky that Hart, instead of quitting after the House votes, might be encouraged to continue talking.
Meanwhile, a possible vote on the proposed nuclear freeze reemerged in connection with the defense authorization bill as pro-freeze senators tried without success to get Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) to schedule a hearing on the freeze before the August recess.
All eight committee Democrats are ready to demand a hearing but need at least one Republican to constitute a majority, thereby forcing a hearing over Percy's objections, sources said.
After a formal request for a hearing yesterday, Percy stood by his decision to schedule it Sept. 20, saying more time is needed to pursue "build-down" arms control proposals and explore constituent sentiment on the freeze issue.
Freeze proponents complain that a delay would give the administration more time to deflect support for the freeze and might kill it for this year, especially if Congress goes home early, as Baker plans.