House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin probably thought of Ron Dellums as "the wild man from Berkeley," which is Dellums's designation of himself. To Dellums, Aspin was "Les Make a Deal Aspin" -- a reference to the chairman's long record of giving his old friends at the Pentagon most of what they want, if not all of it.
That's all changed. As of a week ago, they are partners, joined together to bring death to the B-2 "stealth" bomber. For Dellums (D-Calif.), it was sweet vindication when Aspin (D-Wis.) sought him out and told him, "I'm going to be with you on the B-2." Last year, with Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), he led a drive against the bat-wing contraption that supposedly evades radar detection. He thinks he won the debate, although he lost the vote.
Now the House is getting used to the sight of the two ill-assorted warriors marching shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight to down the B-2: Dellums, the erect, exquisitely tailored Vietnam dove, and Aspin, the gawky, round-shouldered, rumpled "defense intellectual," against whom Dellums voted in a contest for the committee chairmanship three years ago.
Dellums and Kasich had a five-man task force, which included two other Republicans, Thomas J. Ridge (Pa.) and John G. Rowland (Conn.), and Democrat Jim Slattery (Kan.). They worked the issue diligently for two years. The advent of Aspin to their band has been truly, as Dellums said on the floor, the arrival of the 800-pound gorilla.
Perhaps, as some think, they might even have downed the B-2 without him. Dellums has 146 co-sponsors on the bill that carries his and Kasich's name. He says he has 207 sure votes. Some members withheld their signatures to keep from activating pro-B-2 lobbyists.
The cost of the B-2 is what Aspin held against it. The military numbers could threaten the budget deal. The B-2 goes for more than $800 million per copy. Dellums has been fighting defense budgets for 20 years. As he said to his Democratic colleagues in a seminar last March, "I have been patronized and laughed at all this time. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall, I have become mainstream. Congress is coming to me." The leadership is cheering him on.
Skeptics have been asking since July 23, the day Aspin announced he was taking over the antiaircraft guns, if Aspin is going to stick to it. Aspin has taken on big weapons systems before, notably the MX missile -- but not for long. When he was running for chairman of Armed Services, he told several liberal members that he would join them in killing the MX.
But he never said it for the record, and sure enough, when the defense budget passed, Aspin had made provision for 50 MXs. Members were supposed to be grateful that he only went for 50 instead of the original 200 President Reagan had requested.
Dellums goes bail for his new friend. "I think he is really serious," he says. "This time he told the whole world; that is the difference."
While Dellums dreams of Congress's downing a major weapons system for the first time, Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is mounting the ramparts to defend the B-2.
No one knows why. Nunn, a champion of the Pentagon -- although like Aspin, he makes passes at peripheral extravagances -- showed signs of having kicked Cold Warriorism. He recently declared that the Defense Department should do something useful, like cleaning up the environment. But the administration is adamant about the B-2, and Nunn says that if the president and his national security adviser get working, he may be able to pull it out for them.
It will be interesting to see what rationale they offer for the plane. Nunn emerged from the White House saying little more than that "the world is dangerous."
Nunn is so powerful in the Senate that it is always a foregone conclusion that the side he takes will win. But Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine), who is organizing the Republican opposition to the plane, thinks that a growing number reject the premise of a nuclear exchange -- in the aftermath of which the B-2 will be sent to scout out missile sites that may have escaped the MXs and sea-launched ballistic missiles.
"I'm just not sure we need a plane that will be flying around in Dante's inferno looking for missile sites," says Cohen.
The conventional wisdom is that Aspin will prevail in the House and that Nunn will prevail in the Senate and in the following conference, particularly if Senate liberals, as is their wont, give their proxies to Nunn. But the new team of Aspin and Dellums is planning strategy for the conference, and is willing to sit with Nunn as long as it takes.