No money dividend seen in Bush's nuclear arms cuts Bush's political edge may lose out to budget cutters.

September 30, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's announcement of a unilateral reduction in nuclear arms could dramatically alter the congressional debate over Pentagon spending, while giving ,X Bush at least a temporary advantage in the political infighting, according to defense policy experts.

But in the long run, it may cost him as Democrats see openings to make even deeper defense cuts than the administration wants, the experts say.

In votes last week on the 1992 defense spending bill, the Senate killed two of the president's programs -- the MX rail-garrison and the short-range nuclear attack missile. Two of the programs for which Bush had hoped to salvage congressional support (the B-2 bomber and the Strategic Defense Initiative) were barely clinging to life after the Senate narrowly defeated votes to kill the bomber and cut funding for the SDI.

Many Republicans joined Democrats in the votes, charging that Bush's defense budget took no account of the sudden demise of the superpower nuclear rivalry.

That charge lost some of its effectiveness with Bush's Friday night speech. Bush ordered two programs killed that the administration had fought unsuccessfully to save earlier in the week, the MX rail-garrison program and the short-range attack missile. Those changes, along with other proposals, would save $550 million in fiscal year 1992 and $20 billion over about 20 years, a minute fraction of the Pentagon's proposed budgets. But by proposing such concessions, say many congressional observers, the president seems to have dealt himself back into the defense debate at the last moment.

"Once again, when he looked like he was not reacting to the changes in the world, President Bush has launched a pre-emptive strike by going farther than many would have thought he would ever go," says the Brookings Institution's Lawrence J. Korb. "He's regained the initiative" in the struggle with Congress over setting defense budget priorities, he says.

But the president's actions may have a downside.

Although initially caught off guard by Bush's announcement, key Democrats rushed to take credit for the president's proposals, noting that many Democrats had argued for similar cuts after the failed coup in Moscow. And the Democratic-controlled Congress quickly called for even further cuts in the defense budget.

Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, says: "Congress desperately needs some money to address our economy at home."

By signaling to Congress that he is prepared to give up on once-high defense priorities, Bush may merely have whetted the appetites of defense budget-cutters who are still looking for the "peace dividend," policy analysts say.

"The risk is you've opened the door to go further," says Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project in Washington. "And that strategy can work, but it's always a risky bet. If you open the door, people will walk through it and pretty soon you have an orgy of budget-cutting [and] program-cutting."

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