The House of Representatives, reaffirming its decision earlier this week, voted 217 to 210 Thursday to release $1.5 billion for production of 21 new MX missiles. As a result, the weapon that has survived controversy and cliff-hanging votes in Congress for more than a decade is virtually certain to become operational. Added to those already in production, the second group brings to 41 of the number of 10-warhead ``missile experimentals.''
But no sooner had the MX passed the critical House test than some of its top Senate backers sent the message of ``thus far and no farther.'' Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia and three fellow MX supporters announced that they would push for limiting the program to 40 missiles deployed in silos. President Reagan has sought to place 100 MXs in silos in Nebraska and Wyoming and to build an additional 123 for spares and testing.
``We do not think the MX deployed in vulnerable silos is our highest-priority strategic program,'' said a statement drafted by Mr. Byrd and fellow Democratic Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia, Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, and David L. Boren of Oklahoma. The senators, who were key supporters of the MX in the latest debate, said that Congress should approve building only 12 MX missiles as spares for 1986. President Reagan has sought 48.
The four Democrats listed budget priorities as a main concern as they broke with the White House on future missiles. ``In light of the massive federal deficit, we are going to have to search our military programs for areas where savings can be realized, including strategic systems,'' said their statement.
The announced switch by long-time supporters signals the next phase of the long MX controversy as it moves from strategic arguments to budgetary.
For a majority in both houses of Congress, concerns about showing a strong front to the Soviets at the Geneva arms talks had been persuasive in the past two weeks of debate. Now that the weapon has been approved for partial completion, its critics are beginning to hammer on the issue of the program's price tag, estimated at $30 billion or more if built in its entirety.
House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts said members were talking of rejecting construction of any new missiles for 1986. And majority leader Jim Wright (D) of Texas said, ``There is a strong sense in Congress that enough is enough.''