The House yesterday opened this year's defense spending debate by eliminating fiscal 1991 funding for the planned new NATO air base in Crotone, Italy, but then rejected broad cuts in an $8.3 million military construction bill heavily geared toward bases in the United States.

The House approved the overall measure 312 to 82, reflecting broad support for beefed-up spending for many U.S. reserve and guard facilities in dozens of members' home districts.

While large numbers of Republicans backed construction cuts, Democrats led the way in defeating two amendments that would have trimmed the 1991 military construction appropriation measure, first by $160 million, then by $70 million.

"I'm amazed to see my friends on the other side of the aisle voting so heavily against defense cuts," cracked Rep. Harris W. Fawell (R-Ill.), a regular critic of appropriations bills. But Rep. W.G. (Bill) Hefner (D-N.C.), chairman of the military appropriations subcommittee, noted that the overall bill was more than $800 million below the president's request.

The voice vote eliminating the U.S. contribution to the Crotone base came after a stinging critique of the planned facility by Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), who described it as "far beyond anything we have in this country."

Top military officials have promoted the $727 million base, to be built in the dusty farmlands of southern Italy, as critical to the needs of NATO's southern flank, and as a model of "burden-sharing" by other NATO countries.