After voting "no" on the proposition for three straight years, the House yesterday acceded to President Reagan's request to resume production of chemical weapons and to procure nerve gas.
The House action, authorizing $124.5 million for procurement of nerve gas, followed a similar Senate vote last month. The House version would delay release of the money for more than two years and contains strict conditions that are not in the Senate measure. Differences between the two bills must be worked out by a conference committee.
The back-to-back House votes of 229-to-196 and 223-to-196 in favor of nerve gas came after heavy lobbying by the White House. In the past, the Democratic-controlled House has easily blocked efforts to build new lethal chemical weapons, while the Republican-led Senate regularly has backed them.
In yesterday's key vote on ending a 16-year moratorium on production of lethal chemical weapons, 86 Democrats and 143 Republicans voted for the weapons; 162 Democrats and 34 Republicans opposed them. Among local Maryland and Virginia lawmakers, only Reps. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) opposed the nerve gas money.
Lawmakers said yesterday the House's change of heart appeared to reflect continued White House pressure, the desire of some Democrats to appear more pro-defense, worries about increased Soviet chemical-weapons stockpiles and a sense that modern, "binary" chemical weapons will be safer than existing "unitary" ones.
Binary weapons are not lethal until two chemical agents have mixed, which is supposed to happen only when the shell has been launched or the bomb has been dropped. The two chemicals can be stored well apart from each other. Unitary weapons are deadly at all times, including in storage.
"I feel President Reagan's tire tracks down my back," said Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), one of the leading opponents of nerve gas. "The president did a masterful lobbying job, particularily the Republican freshman."
Twenty-eight of the 30 freshman Republicans voting yesterday supported funding nerve gas production.
Porter said the language adopted yesterday as an amendment to the fiscal 1986 defense authorization contained strict conditions that made some past opponents feel comfortable supporting chemical weapons.
The amendment, sponsored by Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), would prohibit release of the funds until after Sept. 30, 1987. The money would be released only if the United States has not signed a chemical-weapons treaty and if the president certifies that the weapons are needed for national security.
The president would also have to certify that the North Atlantic Council of NATO has formally agreed that its chemical-weapons stock needs to be modernized and that binary weapons could be stored and deployed within their territories.
NATO has not supported renewed production of chemical weapons, which could make it difficult for Reagan to meet that condition. However, Porter and other lawmakers said yesterday that the NATO conditions are likely to dropped or substantially modified in conference.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who voted for renewed production of chemical weapons, said yesterday that supporters of chemical weapons "had a better case than has come through in the past. The argument about binaries being safer is coming through a little bit more. You've got chemical weapons in existence anyway. What you're talking about is modernizing them."