A rebellion in the House on the defense bill, although apparently quelled by the Democratic leadership, nevertheless signifies lean years for the Defense Department during the rest of President Reagan's term, a wide spectrum of lawmakers said yesterday.
Reps. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.), a Midwest Republican conservative, and Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.), an East Coast Democratic liberal, articulated the prevailing view expressed by many of their colleagues when they said the looming federal deficits of over $200 billion now scare politicians more than the Russians do.
"The Department of Defense is in for real difficulties," said Frenzel, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax bills. "It is not going to get anything more than inflation in the years ahead. My fears about the deficit swallow up all my fears about cutting the defense budget."
"What you've just seen in the House is like watching an aircraft carrier turn around," Downey said. "The turn has started and will continue until defense spending is on a new course."
Conservative Frenzel and liberal Downey were among many unlikely allies this week in the battle to reject the House-Senate conference report on a compromise bill authorizing $302 billion for the Pentagon for fiscal 1986. This total was $10 billion more than the House had approved in calling for zero growth in fiscal 1986.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) had to enter the fight to keep the compromise version of the military procurement bill from being scuttled. He quelled the rebellion by promising to send to the floor a measure directing the House Appropriations Committee to approve no more than $292.5 billion for the Pentagon in the separate authorization bill.
Also, some of the procurement and conflict-of-interest changes passed by the House but lost in the conference on the authorization bill would be restored under the O'Neill compromise. The vehicle for these changes will be the resolution that continues funding for government agencies, including the Pentagon, at this year's level when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. The government lives off the money in the continuing resolution until appropriations bills are enacted.
Rep. William V. Chappell Jr. (D-Fla.), the second-ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, who will chair that key panel while Chairman Joseph P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.) recuperates from surgery, has been a steadfast Pentagon supporter. But he also said the Reagan rearmament program is so completely stalled that even the 3 percent annual growth above inflation -- which looked as though it was certain in Congress just six months ago -- is no longer in reach.
Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), the embattled chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who is accused by some members of surrendering too much of the House bill in the conference with the Senate, said yesterday, "I think we've got a deal." He was referrring to the O'Neill compromise that is expected to keep the conference report from being rejected.
But in discussing the significance of the House rebellion, Aspin agreed with other lawmakers that it is a new era for the Pentagon as far as getting money out of Congress is concerned. The Pentagon will be lucky to stay even with inflation, he said, far less get the 3 percent real growth recommended by the House and Senate for 1987 and 1988.
The chairman cited these three reasons for the rebellion which, in his view, dramatized the reversal in the Pentagon's political fortunes for the foreseeable future:
*The growing feeling that the House-Senate budget resolution, recommending zero growth plus inflation, was less of a cut than advertised even though constituents were exhorting the lawmakers to do something about the deficit.
*The announcement by White House spokesman Larry Speakes last month that Reagan will abide by the lower Senate figures in cutting some domestic programs, rather than the higher House totals, thus freeing House members from any obligation to abide by the higher Senate figures on defense.
*The illness of Addabbo.
With Addabbo at the helm, House members would feel confident that the authorization bill would be lowered, he said. With Addabbo out, conservatives and liberals felt compelled to take matters into their own hands to get the defense number down.