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Defense: growth and direction

Congressional action illustrates the bipartisan support for the defense thrust of the Reagan administration - as well as the deep concerns some Democrats and Republicans have about aspects of it.

Although all the details are not yet worked out, Congress thus far has handed President Reagan nearly all the elements he had sought in his defense package, the military authorization bill of nearly $300 billion. These include such expensive items as the B-1 bomber and the controversial MX missile - albeit in fewer numbers than he had sought.

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Generally, Democrats as well as Republicans agree the defense budget should grow: Even Democratic presidential candidates Walter Mondale and Gary Hart have concurred. At issue is the amount of growth, and the precise makeup of the defense package.

Congressional concerns about individual aspects of the administration's defense posture are clear; so, too, are concerns about the related fundamental issues of arms control and the defense efforts of American allies.

The most controversial issue within the defense budget itself was the MX missile. The President had sought 40, the House approved only 15, and Vice-President George Bush's tie-breaking vote was necessary to prevent a defeat by the Republican-controlled Senate, which ultimately voted for 21. (The difference will be resolved in a Senate-House conference, as will other details.)

At the same time the Senate several times in recent days has made clear its deep concern about the lack of motion in achieving arms control with no US-Soviet talks now under way. Most recently the Senate asked the President to submit to it two nuclear-test-ban treaties negotiated during the last decade but never ratified by the Senate. That body also has asked that a summit between US and Soviet leaders be held on nuclear weapons, and that a ban on space weapons be sought.

Through a Senate proposal Congress has sent a stiff warning to America's European allies that they must increase their efforts to defend themselves. The message was sent with Senate consideration of a proposal by Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, a respected proponent of a strong defense. The Nunn amendment would have required the US to pull out nearly one-third of its troops now in Europe unless its allies increased their own defensive forces. Ultimately the measure lost. But its warning to European allies was clear.

It is difficult for the US to push Europe too hard to increase its defense spending at this time. Europe is struggling to decrease its relatively high unemployment, and the Continent needs to convert its outmoded economic base to modern high-tech industries.

Both require cash. But the strong US dollar is attracting so much capital that it is difficult for Europe to snare enough investment funding for these needs - let alone to bolster its defense.

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