NMD Bill Stalled in Senate; New Bill Introduced in House

FOR THE SECOND time this year, on September 9, Senate Republicans fell only one vote short of forcing a floor vote on the "American Missile Protection Act of 1998." The bill (S. 1873), introduced in March by Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), states that it is U.S. policy "to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense [NMD] system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate)." Even though all 55 Senate Republicans and four Democrats—Daniel Akaka (HI), Ernest Hollings (SC), Daniel Inouye (HI) and Joseph Lieberman (CT)—voted to end debate on the Cochran bill and bring it up for a floor vote, the measure failed because 60 votes are required for a motion of cloture.

Earlier, on August 5, Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) introduced a one-sentence bill stating "That it is the policy of the United States to deploy a national missile defense." Because the Weldon bill (H.R. 4402) does not contain the controversial language that created problems for earlier bills, such as a specific date for NMD deployment, it has already gained 63 co-sponsors, including 24 Democrats. The Clinton administration, which thus far has only committed the United States to the development of an NMD system, has not yet officially commented on the new bill, which may come up for a floor vote before the House adjourns in October.


The Cochran Bill

On May 13, the Senate defeated a motion of cloture on the Cochran bill by a vote of 59-41. (See ACT, May 1998.) Since then, a series of key domestic and international events inspired Senate Republicans to bring S. 1873 up again. On July 15, the Rumsfeld Commission concluded that the United States may have "little or no warning" before facing a long-range ballistic missile threat from so-called "rogue states," such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Just one week later, on July 22, Iran tested its 1,300-kilometer-range Shahab-3, which will be capable of reaching Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Then, on August 31, North Korea tested the Taepo Dong-1, which, with its range of 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers, could strike targets throughout Japan. In the September 9 floor debate on the Cochran bill, Senate Republicans pointed to these events as evidence that the ballistic missile threat is growing and that the United States must now deploy an NMD system.

The 41 Democrats who voted against cloture countered by citing an August 24 letter to Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) by General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, challenging the Rumsfeld Commission's assessment of the missile threat. Shelton wrote, "[The Chiefs and I] remain confident that the Intelligence Community can provide the necessary warning of the indigenous development and deployment by a rogue state of an ICBM threat to the United States." Furthermore, he stated that rogue states are "unlikely" to acquire an ICBM capability in a short period of time through foreign assistance and high-risk development programs while avoiding detection by the intelligence community. Shelton argued that rogue nations might also employ "unconventional, terrorist-style delivery means" in an attack against the United States and that the United States should address the full range of possible threats.

Accordingly, Shelton reiterated his support for the administration's "3+3" program, under which the United States is developing an NMD system by 2000 that could be deployed by 2003 if three criteria have been met: a specific missile threat has been identified, the technology has proven to be effective and the system is deemed affordable. If the United States decides not to deploy an NMD system in 2000, it will continue to refine the elements of its system, always remaining three years away from actual deployment.


The Weldon Bill

In an August 5 press conference, proponents of the Weldon bill charged that the administration is using the "3+3" program to conceal its opposition to NMD deployment. Calling instead for a commitment now to deploy an NMD system, they argued that this would send a clear signal to Russia that the United States is serious about missile defense and might also deter rogue states from expending the vast resources necessary to acquire ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory.

H.R. 4402 is likely to pass because it seeks to find a common ground between those who favor immediate NMD deployment and those who prefer a more cautious approach. Unlike Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's "National Missile Defense Act of 1997," the Weldon bill does not mandate NMD deployment by a certain date. Weldon's bill also does not identify a specific NMD architecture, does not base a deployment decision solely on the technical feasibility of the system (as does the Cochran bill) and is silent on the issue of U.S. compliance with the ABM Treaty.