MX debate turns Senate into `Super Bowl of lobbying'

It's the Super Bowl of lobbying -- a high-drama event of heated emotion and cold facts about nuclear warfare, dollars, and whether ``hardened'' silos would withstand a Soviet attack. The fight over the MX missile brought President Reagan to the Capitol Tuesday to make a plea for the weapon. It has also mobilized more than 100 grass-roots peace groups to work against the missile nationwide and filled the Senate hallways with lobbyists sporting ``Stop MX'' buttons.

Some of the industries that have contracts to build the nuclear missile have banded together and entered the fray by delivering hefty briefing notebooks to every lawmaker on the specifics of the MX.

Conservative groups have launched their own pro-MX campaigns. Citizens for America, which calls itself ``Reagan's grass-roots lobby,'' mailed plastic poker chips to supporters, with the message: ``Don't let Congress gamble with America's essential bargaining chip'' in the arms talks with the Soviets.

In the case of one senator, Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, the lobbying has even reached into his family. Daughter Christine DeConcini, an intern with Women's Action for Nuclear Disarmament, is helping that group's effort against the MX.

Senator DeConcini favors the missile. ``I wouldn't say I've tried to lobby him,'' said his daughter in an interview. But she said that the missile is a frequent topic of conversation between them. ``I use him more as a source'' to understand the issue, she said.

After more than a decade of debate in Congress, only 21 of the 10-warhead MX missiles are in production. And as of this writing the Senate was deciding whether to release the money for an additional 21 this year. The House is expected to take up the issue next week.

Experts argue about whether the proposed sites for the missiles, 100 existing Minuteman missile silos, could protect the MX from foreign attack. But somehow the missile has survived countless political attacks, including some adverse votes on Capitol Hill. Its history so far sustains the adage that Congress almost never rejects a major weapons system sought by a president.

Even so, the lawmakers continue to go through the excruciating exercise at least once a year of deciding whether to halt or proceed with the MX. One button being worn on Capitol Hill this week said, ``Put Congress out of its misery. Shoot the MX.''

The pressures are even greater this year because of the Geneva talks between the Soviets and the United States. President Reagan has used the full force of his considerable persuasive powers to urge building the missile which he has dubbed the ``Peacekeeper.''

``While we debated'' over the MX, ``the Soviets deployed,'' President Reagan told Republican senators Tuesday.

``Some of your colleagues have come up with the idea of simply putting a hold or limit on MX production,'' he said. ``I strongly oppose those ideas. . . .''

He charged that voting against the missile would ``gravely weaken our national defenses'' and that it would ``cripple the position of our negotiators in Geneva and show the Soviets that, despite the progress our country has made, at a moment of historic importance a majority in the Congress of the United States still lacks resolve.''

Those strong words were ringing in the ears of members as they prepared to vote on the 21 missiles. But the presidential message is but part of the pressure building. For weeks, Reagan has been meeting with small groups of lawmakers at the White House.

Sen. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana said in a recent interview that such visits are powerful tools. He complimented the White House for its efficient lobbying effort. After visiting with the President, he received a call from Navy Secretary John Lehman, a man whose opinion Senator Johnston particularly values. Nonetheless, Johnson said last week he remained unpersuaded.

In a less graceful move, the White House threatened to cut off campaign help to Republican Senate members who don't back the President on a variety of issues. That stance has incurred some anger in the GOP camp.

But the White House has not been alone in playing ``hardball,'' according to Senate majority whip Alan K. Simpson. The Wyoming senator told reporters Tuesday that some undecided senators were making ``outrageous'' and ``preposterous'' demands in return for ``yes'' votes.

``Some are engaging in the ancient and venerable ritual of holding out for something,'' said Senator Simpson. ``We say we have a legislature to run. It's not a bank.''

Referring to senators seeking favors in return for their votes, Simpson said: ``If you're in that game, get a mask and a gun.''

On the other side, some farm-state lawmakers, known as the ``silo coalition,'' are advancing the argument that the government should not pour more money into the MX unless it is willing to give more credit aid to farmers.

Meanwhile, Democrats opposed to the missile have discovered that voters rate them as too soft on defense, and some of their leaders are avoiding leading the charge against the MX. ``If I urge my colleagues on the MX, I'll do it on the floor'' of the House, said House majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas, who has recently switched to the anti-MX side. If the MX overcomes two votes this week in the Senate, the battle and the lobbyists will move to the House next week.

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