Washington — To MX or not MX? That is the $1.5 billion question.
Even while the White House coos summit talk at the new Soviet leadership, President Reagan is pouring on the political heat to obtain congressional backing for the MX missile as a bargaining chip in the Geneva arms talks. He won the first skirmish this week when a House Appropriations subcommittee voted to approve releasing $1.5 billion to build 21 more missiles this year.
The battle over the 10-warhead, intercontinental MX, which has had a long and controversial history, confronts the President with his first major political test of the second term.
Winning the battle is among his top four priorities this year, a high White House official says. The three others are reducing federal spending, continuing aid for the Nicaraguan ``freedom fighters'' (as the White House calls the contras), and achieving a new tax law.
To persuade legislators and the public of the need for the MX, the White House has unleashed an intensive lobbying effort. There are almost daily briefings by Pentagon and State Department officials, and the President has pronounced on the subject at every possible opportunity.
The House subcommittee approval, which was expected, was only the first of a series of votes which will be required in the next couple of weeks. The resolution is expected to come before the full committee next Monday. Regardless of what action is taken at committee level, however, the real battle over the MX legislation is likely to be fought on the floor of the House and the Senate.
If it were not for the Geneva negotiations, the MX might well be stymied, congressional sources say. But the President's request for release of the funds coincides with opening of the arms talks, something not foreseen when the House leadership promised to hold a vote on the issue before the Easter recess this year. Many Democrats, especially sensitive to not being perceived as ``soft'' on defense, find themselves on the spot.
The expectation now is that the President will win the battle. Congressional sources estimate a 20- to 30-vote margin of victory in the House and a margin of 5 to 6 votes in the Senate. But Congress may go on to reduce the number of missiles being sought by the President for fiscal 1986 (he has asked for 48) so that he will get fewer than the total of 100 he wanted.
A key player in the congressional drama is Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Mr. Aspin last year voted for funding 21 missiles but not releasing the funds unless the President requested and won new votes on the issue no earlier than March 1 of this year. He will announce his decision on the new resolution next week, says a committee aide.
Congressional sources say they would be surprised if Aspin did not support the MX in the House floor vote. But as the influential House committee takes up the 1986 defense budget, Aspin is expected to link any new MX procurement with arms control. For instance, new legislation could state that funding for additional missiles would be contingent on the US continuing to abide by the unratified SALT II agreement. The administration now says continued US observance of the treaty will depend on progress in the Geneva arms talks, indicating that the SALT II issue will be used as a bargaining chip.
As the President gains ground on the MX issue, various public-interest lobbying groups, including Common Cause, have organized nationwide campaigns to try to defeat it, urging the public to contact their legislators. Opponents of the MX argue that the missiles would be placed in vulnerable silos, that the MX therefore is not a credible bargaining chip, that it would add to the soaring budget deficit (48 more missiles would cost some $4 billion), and that it undercuts the administration's argument that large, multiple-warhead missiles based in silos are destabilizing.
``It [the MX] is a first-strike weapon, that clearly invites the other side to increase its own arsenal,'' says Rep. Les AuCoin (D) of Oregon, who voted against the MX in the House subcommittee. ``Based in a vulnerable silo, it is a sitting duck and it will become the glass jar of our strategic forces.''
Critics also point out that the US Navy is developing an equally effective weapon, the multiple-warhead D-5 missile, called the Trident II. This will be operational three years after the MX and, placed aboard the Trident submarine, will have the advantage of being highly survivable against a Soviet first strike.
``The D-5's survivability, accuracy, and hard-target kill capability are what worry Soviet leaders,'' writes Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas, ``and that is why they've done their best to stop it, unlike the MX.''
But for the administration the giant MX, however flawed in concept, has become a symbol of US determination to counter the Soviet buildup of heavy land-based missiles and overcome the clear advantage the Russians now have in throw-weight.
Rep. Joseph M. McDade (R) of Pennsylvania, a sponsor of the House subcommittee resolution to release funds for the MX, said failure to give the administration the 21 additional missiles would be ``devastating'' to the US position in Geneva.
Each chamber of the Congress must vote twice on the MX funding, once on authorization for the missiles and once on appropriation of the $1.5 billion.