WASHINGTON -- The Senate endorsed yesterday President Bush's two top military priorities, the stealth bomber and the "star wars" anti-missile defense system, rejecting arguments that the easing of Cold War tensions and closer U.S.-Soviet ties made the weapons unnecessary.
In a series of votes, the Senate approved $4.6 billion for the next fiscal year to test sensors in space and begin fielding an anti-missile defense system by 1996 that would protect the United States against limited nuclear attacks.
Lawmakers then voted to buy four more of the bat-winged stealth, or B-2, bombers, rejecting an amendment to halt production of the aircraft at the 15 planes Congress has already ordered. The vote was 57-42.
Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes were among the 35 Democrats, joined by seven Republicans, who were among the minority in the vote. Twenty-one Democrats joined 36 Republicans in voting down the proposal.
The action yesterday and late Wednesday, in a series of amendments to the military budget bill for the 1992 fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, sets the Senate on a collision course with the House of Representatives, which last month slashed financing for the anti-missile program, known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, to $3.5 billion and voted to halt production of the B-2 at the 15 planes.
The administration asked for $5.2 billion for SDI and four new stealth bombers.
Mr. Bush has put the full weight of the administration's support behind the SDI and stealth programs and threatened to veto the entire $291 billion budget bill if Congress cut either too deeply.
In some of the most emotional debate of the day, lawmakers wrestled with the fate of the B-2 before rejecting an amendment offered by Sens. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, and Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.
Last month, the Armed Services Committee approved the administration's request to build four more B-2s, which cost $865 million each.
Critics of the plane, who argue that it is behind schedule and draining dollars from other weapons systems, contend that the bomber's original mission to hunt mobile long-range ballistic missiles in the Soviet Union is now outdated.
"Do we plan to bomb the bread lines in Moscow?" asked Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn.
In a strange twist during the middle of the B-2 debate, Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., made public a letter sent to him yesterday by Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice disclosing that cracks had been found in about one-third of the Air Force's 97-plane fleet of B-1B bombers. The cracks were repaired but then found to have worsened in about 17 aircraft.
The B-2 is to replace the B-1B as the nation's primary strategic bomber. Air Force officials said the cracks do not threaten the B-1Bs' "structural integrity," but a spokesman could not explain the timing of the announcement so close to the B-2 vote.
The Senate agreed late Wednesday to order the Pentagon to begin deployment of a single anti-missile site near Grand Forks, N.D., by 1996 that would use 100 missiles to protect most of the United States from a limited nuclear attack.
Mr. Bush would also be directed to begin negotiating with the Soviet Union to allow multiple ground-based sites across the country.
Critics of SDI say that deploying an anti-missile system could undermine the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972.