MX missile faces rough going in '85. `Star wars,' deficit may combine to undercut support for the missile

The MX missile -- a key bargaining chip on the United States side of the negotiating table at Geneva -- faces an increasingly bumpy ride on the road to deployment. Congressional support, tenuous in recent years, is shifting subtly but significantly. The MX must still pass four high legislative hurdles to ensure production of the 21 missiles included in this year's defense budget. And as lawmakers (especially a growing number of Republicans) look hard at defense spending in order to reduce the federal deficit next year, the MX looks more and more like a tempting target.

``I've supported the MX,'' Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming said Wednesday. ``But I'm really torn there politically, personally, and morally.''

On the other hand, Secretary of State George P. Shultz's recent success in reestablishing arms control talks with the Soviet Union has given the MX a decided boost. The day after he returned from Geneva, Secretary Shultz was on Capitol Hill urging key House and Senate members not to kill the MX.

Even MX opponents, such as House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Dante Fascell (D) of Florida, said they expected Shultz's arguments to ``be very persuasive.''

One of the most important players in the MX drama is Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin. Mr. Aspin -- a former Pentagon analyst who has often been critical of the Defense Department -- took the lead in preserving the MX last year.

Aspin argued that lawmakers should save the MX (at least for the moment) as an influential tool in bringing the Soviets back to the bargaining table and also as leverage to make the Reagan administration more active on arms control.

But in a speech Wednesday, Aspin displayed a decidedly less friendly attitude toward the MX. If the new administration thrust is in the direction of its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ``star wars,'' asked the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, doesn't this mean that the MX ``is no longer central to the negotiations?''

He continued: ``Isn't the threat to build defensive systems around our missiles if the Soviets don't reduce this offensive threat to our land-based force a more rational threat (and, therefore, a better bargaining chip) than the threat to build MX and thereby put at risk their missiles?''

Aspin urged fellow lawmakers to play a constructive role in arms control and warned against sending US representatives to Geneva ``with a weak negotiating hand.'' But he also said the administration ``is going to have to spell out its position with considerably more clarity'' if it expects to have congressional support.

MX opponents acknowledge the general nervousness on Capitol Hill over the issue, but claim they still are at least a few votes ahead. As part of the 1985 defense authorization bill, the administration cannot spend the $1.5 billion allotted for production of 21 missiles until the House and Senate each vote twice to approve the expenditure.

``Clearly, the bargaining chip is going to be the issue the administration uses to sell the program,'' said Michael Mawby, political director of the antinuclear group SANE. ``But we still figure we're a few votes ahead. We feel pretty confident that there is absolutely no change among those members who were with us last year. It's the new members that we just haven't been able to pin down yet.''

MX and SDI contractors were also paying close attention to last November's election. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorties issued an analysis of Federal Election Commission data Wednesday showing that political-action committees sponsored by such contractors gave more than $900,000 to congressional candidates.

Nearly 60 percent of the money went to the eight members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee up for reelection. The top recipient ($73,549) was Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, a strong MX supporter, who heads the Armed Services subcommittee on strategic and theater nuclear forces. Ironically, the next two top recipients, Republicans Charles H. Percy of Illinois and Roger W. Jepsen of Iowa, lost their reelection bids. -- 30 --{et

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