Washington — While United States and Soviet arms negotiators grapple in Geneva, another arms control battle is raging on Capitol Hill. The ongoing struggle pits the Senate and the White House against the House of Representatives in a conflict over nuclear testing, chemical weapons, anti-satellite weapons, and compliance with the never-ratified SALT II arms control treaty. It involves an institutional turf fight as well as a classic clash of ideologies. And it is fueled by an internecine struggle for the chairmanship of the powerful House Armed Services Committee.
It also contains an element of high drama: The proposals represent the boldest attempt yet by House Democrats to overhaul the administration's arms control policies. Three of the House's proposed measures would halt virtually all nuclear-weapons tests, ban the production of new chemical weapons, and slap a one-year moratorium on antisatellite weapons tests. Another measure would force the US strategic and missile bomber force to adhere to the limits of SALT II, which the administration has said it will exceed later this year when cruise missiles are deployed aboard B-52 bombers.
The Senate is set against the House initiatives, which are seen by many senators as an infringement on their constitutionally mandated treaty-making duties. The President vows to veto any bill with such arms control measures; administration officials and many independent analysts see the House proposals as part of a bald effort to expand congressional influence in the formulation of national-security policy.
But the arms control proposals have been written into the House's version of next year's proposed defense budget and may be included this week in the House's version of a giant appropriations bill that provides the actual funds for government programs. So the disputes must be resolved before the federal spending bills for fiscal 1987 can be put into effect.
Fiscal 1987 begins next Wednesday, and the government needs its new spending bills signed and sealed by midnight Tuesday. House and Senate conferees are huddled in conference, trying to iron out the differences between both chambers' defense spending bills.
Nevertheless, the gridlock has to be broken by Wednesday, otherwise the federal government will run out of money to fund most of its programs.
``It's brinkmanship,'' explains Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, a conferee.
No one says that the present disagreements cannot be worked out as others have in the past. ``It's like any conference, you have to be creative,'' says House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin. If creativity is not forthcoming, Congress can simply agree to put off the arms control matter until next year, while keeping the federal government in business.
But the hardened positions of both sides, as well as the unique circumstances surrounding the dispute, make this year's quest for compromise on the defense spending bill an unusual challenge. ``It's hard to see much gray area between the two sides,'' admits Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who says the odds of the conference's resolving its differences are ``certainly no better than 50-50.'' Meanwhile, some House Democrats are circulating a letter asking their leadership to go to the brink if necessary.
To a certain extent, the House proposals represent an attempt by Democrats to shape a distinct defense policy. Democrats have been hobbled in their efforts to oppose the Reagan-era defense buildup by charges of being soft on defense. So this year, the Democratic House leadership has also pushed hard to impose arms control measures on the White House, hoping that it would become a Democratic campaign issue.
Yet the House-Senate conference is also said to be affected by an insider's struggle for the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee. Indeed, the bill has been cast by some as a last-chance test for Representative Aspin, who is fighting off a serious challenge from two announced candidates.
Mr. Aspin unseated the committee's 80-year-old chairman, Mel Price (D) of Illinois, with a surprise vote of his Democratic colleagues that struck at the base of the institution's venerable seniority practices. But in the two years that have followed, the independent-minded Aspin alienated many of his supporters by breaking party ranks and supporting the MX missile and the administration's proposed aid to the contras fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista government. Many members also felt he sacrificed too many House positions on military procurement reform and other matters in last year's House-Senate conference on the defense bill.
Success in persuading the Senate to accept some of the House arms control measures would be a boost to Aspin. That leads many observers to think that Aspin and the House conferees, many of whom he specially chose from the ranks of supporters who back the House arms control measures, are digging in their heels more vigorously than they might otherwise.