The 99th Congress is lumbering down the home stretch and into a final showdown with the Reagan administration. Once again, arms control is the flash point. House Democrats want the administration to adhere to the never-ratified SALT II arms limitation treaty. President Reagan, who left for Iceland yesterday to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, refuses to go along.
With crucial congressional elections only three weeks away, each side in the dispute is attempting to hold the other's feet to the fire for political advantage. The flame is provided by the perennial end-of-the-year crunch, when Washington slaps together a massive, catch-all spending bill to keep the federal government from running out of operating funds. Technically, the federal government would have to ``shut down'' if one side does not bend.
Meanwhile, Congress is trying to tie up other unfinished business so that it can finally adjourn next Wednesday. Lawmakers finished with a five-year, $9 billion renewal of the Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. Because the legislation calls for new taxes, including a broad levy on corporate earnings and a new tax on crude oil, senior White House advisors are urging a presidential veto.
Republican lawmakers, however, are lobbying for the President's support for the popular Superfund program, warning that a veto could cost Republicans at the ballot box.
The conflict between the White House and the House Democrats over arms-control provisions is, in one sense, a classic example of the end-of-the-year brinksmanship between Capitol Hill and the White House that has repeatedly cropped up in recent years.
``This is just the way this place works,'' says Rep. Dante Fascell (D) of Florida, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a member of the House-Senate conference working on the defense bill containing the arms-control provisions. ``One side holds out until the other cracks; it's classic bargaining.''
Yet the effort to impose arms-control conventions on the President also represents a high-water mark of congressional frustration with Reagan administration foreign policy. At the same time, the arms-control debate in Congress has become enmeshed in some unusual institutional political considerations that help to set this debate apart from others.
House Democrats have tried to attach four arms-control measures, as well as a provision to sharply reduce funding for Strategic Defense Initiative research, to the part of the fiscal 1987 spending bill that appropriates money for the Defense Department. The measures would require a one-year ban on the testing of nuclear weapons and curb production of chemical weapons and testing of the antisatellite system, in addition to requiring adherance to the 1979 SALT treaty.
The deadlock has already forced lawmakers to pass two temporary spending bills which kept the federal government in business after the Oct. 1 start of fiscal '87. In order to assure passage of a permanent appropriations bill, the Democrats offered a compromise: If the administration would agree to observe the SALT II limits, which it has said it plans to exceed, the Democrats would agree to put off consideration of the other three arms-control measures. At the same time, they offered to pass a another temporary spending bill, minus arms control, that would tide the government over until next week, after President Reagan had met with Mr. Gorbachev.
But the administration refused to consider any such deal, saying that to do so would be to give the Soviets the upper hand in arms negotiations. The White House also refused to consider another temporary spending bill, insisting that it would take pressure off Congress.
House Democrats privately say that Mr. Reagan has the upper hand. ``When push comes to shove, we'll fold,'' said one.
House Democrats are not unified on the arms control provisions, and divisions in the party's ranks are expected to intensify next week if a spending bill has not been passed and the government is forced to shut down ``nonessential'' services. Neither do they have the support of their Democratic colleagues in the Senate, many of whom support the Republican majority's position as dictated by the White House.
Even if the government were to ``shut down'' tomorrow, the effects would not be very noticeable. With a three-day weekend coming up, federal workers are not scheduled to return to work until Tuesday. If an agreement seems imminent by then, they will report to work as usual.