Freeze will likely pass in House, but debate has left it battered

It was still winter when proponents brought to the House floor their nuclear freeze resolution, confident that it was assured of passage. Only a few months before, in town meetings and referendums all over the country, Americans had called for ending the atomic weapons race.

House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts told reporters that voting for the freeze would be an ''easy vote'' for his members.

Now, after more than six weeks of often bitter wrangling, spring has arrived. Capitol Hill is decked out in azalea and dogwood blossoms. And the House still is dealing with the freeze.

The end is finally in sight. The House Rules Committee Tuesday voted to limit debate at 14 more hours, with the final passage almost guaranteed on Thursday.

But after being pulled through 32 hours of bitter debate and close votes on weakening amendments and after having at least nine clarifying amendments attached, the nuclear freeze resolution has lost some of its luster, even if its message is basically unchanged.

''The freeze resolution is still completely intact,'' says Rep. Edward J. Markey, leader of the House movement for the ''immediate, mutual, and verifiable'' freeze in US and Soviet nuclear weapon building. The amendments have only added ''synonyms'' to the resolution, according to the Massachusetts Democrat. ''We had 'mutual,' they wanted 'not unilateral,' '' he says, so now both descriptions are in the resolution.

''The thing has just been dragged out,'' says Mr. Markey, who argues that the long debate has actually benefited the freeze movement by keeping it in the news week after week. ''Nothing more helpful could have occurred except passage,'' he says.

In the eyes of some opponents, however, the lengthy debate has cost the freeze movement dearly. ''We think it's losing steam because the delay has raised some serious questions about the resolution and what it actually means,'' says a Republican House leadership aide. He maintains that even despite almost certain passage of the freeze this week, ''we can declare victory.''

''The whole argument over a nuclear freeze was and remains what it means and what effect it could have on disarmament policy,'' says the GOP aide. ''And nobody has been able to answer that question.'' He adds that while Americans still support the concept of the freeze, the resolution on the floor of the House has lost credibility.

Freeze advocates give opponents points for successfully delaying the resolution.

''They've won some verbal jousting of sophistry,'' says Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, leader of the freeze on the Republican side. ''But they have not won any on any substantive amendments.''

Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin says that opponents won a ''tactical victory'' by putting off the final vote. He also concedes, however, that they have brought up substantial issues during the debating.

''They raise some questions about the freeze as a negotiating position,'' Mr. Aspin says.

During freeze discussions last year, the biggest issue was President Reagan's policy on arms control and whether he was seriously pursuing an end to the weapons race. With 26 more seats than they have now, the Republicans in 1982 were able to substitute language acceptable to the White House for the freeze resolution.

This year freeze opponents shifted the focus of the debate to the freeze itself, says Aspin, so a whole range of issues became relevant. The House finds itself debating whether the freeze would allow the armed forces to modernize and how it would affect bombers or submarines.

''It turned out to not be so easy,'' says Aspin, who says that he still supports the freeze. The best argument for the freeze, he says, is that it would halt the weapons buildup on both sides during negotiations with the Soviets, but he adds that a nuclear freeze ''is always an interim step.''

Pro-freeze forces on Capitol Hill found some comfort this week in votes by US Roman Catholic bishops to strengthen language against the arms race in a pastoral letter that has already been two years in the making.

''It's a reflection of the grass-roots support at the parish level that is very much identical with the grass-roots'' support among congressional constituents, says Markey of the bishops' vote to call for a ''halt'' instead of a ''curb'' in the arms buildup.

Lawmakers point out that the churchmen's dispute over semantics of the freeze is much like that now going on in Congress. However, as with the congressional dispute, the final results remain elusive and promise to be largely symbolic. The House resolution, after a tortuous journey through an ostensibly friendly House, seems destined to die in the Senate where the Republicans have the majority.

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