It hardly provokes the same feuding as tobacco legislation or commands the same public attention as health care and tax reform.
Even so, the question of how quickly the United States should build a scaled-down version of President Reagan's "star wars" antimissile defense has been a fiery issue on Capitol Hill since the GOP's 1994 takeover.
And the debate just got hotter.
An independent commission is disputing the CIA's assessment that "rogue" nations are more than 10 years away from having long-range missiles that could reach the US. The panel contends Iran, Iraq, or North Korea could develop "with little or no warning" missiles capable of lofting nuclear, biological, or chemical warheads into the United States.
With their eyes on the fall elections, GOP lawmakers have seized on the July 15 report to renew attacks on President Clinton's plan to wait until 2000 to decide whether to deploy a shield against a missile attack. They want a system built as soon as possible.
"The American people have been lulled into a false sense of security since the end of the cold war, and I hope that the commission's report will send out a wake-up call," says Rep. Floyd Spence (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the House National Security Committee.
The White House, however, appears confident that missile defense will not be an issue the GOP can use to score points against Mr. Clinton and Democratic candidates.
Administration officials say the report by the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States raises valid issues that they will consider in future threat determinations. But, they add, they have no plans to change national missile-defense policy.
"We stand by the intelligence estimate that ... with the exception of Russia, China, and perhaps North Korea, it is unlikely that other countries will deploy before 2010 an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching any part of the US," says a US official.
CURRENTLY, the Pentagon is forging ahead with a $4.6 billion program to test a single-site national missile-defense system by 2000. It will then assess the effectiveness of the technology and decide if the long-range missile threat to the US warrants the deployment of a full-scale system by 2003, well in advance of the 2010 deadline adjudged by the CIA.
Though it makes no direct reference to the missile-defense issue, the panel chaired by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is urging the administration to review all "analyses, practices, and policies" that used the the CIA estimate.
In finding that US foes could quickly develop long-range missiles, the panel cited the wider availability of sensitive technologies, improved concealment methods, and Chinese and Russian technical assistance to Iran and other states. It also questioned the US intelligence community's ability to accurately assess ballistic-missile threats.
Independent experts, however, say the dispute over the timeliness of the threat diverts attention from the real issue: There is still no proof that a workable national missile-defense system can even be built.
"If you deploy something quickly whose effectiveness is suspect ... you are not doing yourself any favors," says Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon planner who heads the Center for Budgetary and Strategic Analysis, an independent Washington think tank.
The US has spent $50 billion since 1983, when Mr. Reagan launched his Strategic Defense Initiative, to develop technologies that could guide a missile into an incoming warhead and blow it up high above the earth. Yet a functioning system has never been produced. Indeed, the national missile-defense program has been fraught with setbacks. Thirteen of 17 tests of antimissile interceptors over the past decade have failed.
The problems have added billions of dollars to the programs' costs. But political pressure to develop working systems has prompted program managers and military officers to reduce testing to keep their efforts on schedule, prompting another independent panel to warn earlier this year of a "rush to failure."
In a report last month, the Government Accounting Office, a watchdog agency, raised serious doubts about the administration's plan to deploy a national missile-defense system by 2003 if necessary. "Schedule and technical risks associated with a 2003 deployment remain high," the report concludes.