House votes on MX this week; missile's foes expect to win
Foes of the MX missile expect a major victory this week when the House of Representatives again votes on the controversial weapon, whose recent history has zigged and zagged between approval and rejection.
''I think it's going to get licked,'' a confident House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. said in an interview late last week.
''We're going to win it all the way,'' said the Massachusetts Democrat and staunch MX opponent. ''People are appreciating the fact that it's a waste.''
Only a fragile coalition pasted together by some leading liberal Democrats won approval for the missile last November. Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin and others argued that moving ahead on the missile would help push the Soviets toward an arms agreement. A half year later, with arms control at a standstill and the Soviets refusing even to sit down at the bargaining table, the argument and the coalition are somewhat battle-torn.
If the vote this week is between money for 30 missiles, as proposed by the House Armed Services Committee, and zero, then ''zero would win,'' concedes Representative Aspin.
The MX won by only nine votes last year, so only a few converts could make the difference during the House vote that is expected Wednesday.
House Republicans have abandoned even the pretense of winning approval for $3 .1 billion for 40 missiles requested by President Reagan for 1985. Instead, the GOP leadership is scratching around for votes to salvage at least a few of the missiles, with hopes that the Senate could restore even more.
The Reagan administration has proposed eventually deploying 100 MX missiles, with 10 warheads each, to be installed in existing silos in Nebraska and Wyoming.
A barrage of criticism has been aimed at the weapon. It would be vulnerable to attack in the existing bases and should be replaced by small, more easily hidden missiles called ''midgetman,'' say MX detractors.
Opponents go to the debate this week with fresh ammunition from the General Accounting Office (GAO), a congressional investigative agency that last week produced a report casting doubts on the cost estimates and effectiveness of the MX.
According to the study, which has been challenged by the US Defense Department, the price tag of the 100 missiles would be much higher than the $21. 7 billion now set by the Air Force. The Air Force neglected to include all expenses in its estimate, says the GAO. The GAO study also holds that the Soviets have hardened their missile silos since the MX research began, so that by now the American missile's ''probability of inflicting the desired level of damage to Soviet targets may be impaired.''
Supporters see the MX as a replacement for Minuteman missiles, which were built in the 1960s. ''I think it's a necessary upgrade of missiles that are in the silos,'' says Rep. Robert S. Walker (R) of Pennsylvania. ''The question is, down in that silo, do you want plumbing that is 20 to 30 years old?''
But for Aspin and his fellow pro-MX liberals, the key is not a better weapon, but a ''good bargaining chip'' to force arms negotiations. He is fashioning a compromise that would give the Soviets six months to return to the arms control talks. If they come back, then the missile construction could be further delayed. If not, he is proposing to authorize 1985 money for building 15 missiles.
A spokesman for House GOP leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois said the minority leader is ''leaning'' toward the Aspin proposal, although the aide concedes that the White House ''doesn't like it.''
The vote this week could be an uncomfortable choice, especially for liberals who have voted both for the nuclear-weapons freeze and for the MX in the past. Nuclear freeze groups have designated voting against the MX as the litmus test in determining loyalty to their cause.
The main focus of these groups will be a handful of wavering members, such as California's Rep. Vic Fazio, a liberal Democrat who has long favored the MX, but now has doubts.
''I feel the MX has sustained a tremendous amount of criticism,'' he says, and the burden of the weapon is ''getting heavier and heavier to carry.''
But Representative Fazio also sees the flip side of the MX debate. ''It's still a threat to the Soviets. For us to unilaterally not build it troubles me, '' says the Californian, whose district includes two Air Force installations as well as a substantial liberal pro-freeze contingent.
''I'm caught,'' he says. ''I can't make a decision that's going to be pleasing to both sides.''